Sydney International and ASB Classic Preview11 min read
Sydney, Australia (outdoor hard)
The week before a Grand Slam is a potential minefield and I’m always wary of backing a big name or indeed anyone at a short price.
The slightest injury niggle could result in a withdrawal, while there’s always the worry that having got into the tournament, a player could decide they’ve got enough tennis in their legs and the need to get to the Slam venue becomes greater than the one to win more matches.
For the latter reason, the top seeds at these sort of events – often the ones who have genuine hopes of a big run at the pending bigger tournament – are usually worth avoiding.
History shows you get some decent-priced winners (and finalists) in weeks such as these – in 2018 alone Daniil Medvedev (twice), Marton Fucsovics, Mischa Zverev and Damir Dzumhur all won prior to a Slam – and my approach is always to try to seek some out.
One of Medvedev’s wins came right here in Sydney when he beat Alex de Minaur, playing in his first ATP final, to claim his maiden title. That final came 12 months after Gilles Muller won his first tour-level title with victory over Dan Evans, who was also playing in his first final.
That goes to show how players can come through to surprise.
What of the favs?
Medvedev is second seed and favourite this year and at 3/1 has to be passed over, given he is due to play in the Brisbane final at time of writing. Does the talented Russian really want two solid weeks of tennis in his legs heading to Melbourne?
Top seed Stefanos Tsitsipas may want more matches after a somewhat disappointing start to his season at the Hopman Cup where he lost twice in singles, including to Briton Cameron Norrie.
He faces a tricky opener against either Matt Ebden or Nicolas Jarry – if either player serves well they should be able to trouble the young Greek.
Tsitsipas showed last season that he has the game to win in better fields than this but at 10/3 this week, I can leave him alone.
Having backed De Minaur in Brisbane last week, it would be no surprise to me to see him win here but he’s 7/1 this time (compared to 18s for the previous event) and again that looks short enough.
So who is preferred?
The aforementioned Fucsovics looks a runner at 25/1.
The hard-hitting Hungarian is in a decent part of the draw where Gilles Simon is his scheduled quarter-final opponent, although how the Frenchman approaches this having been playing in the Pune semis as recently as Friday is open to question.
Medvedev is also in this half but I’ve already touched upon how he may struggle this week – if indeed he turns up at all.
Fucsovics caught the eye in his season-opening event in Doha, easing past Marius Copil and then taking a set off world number one Novak Djokovic. This built on a decent end to last season when he made hardcourt quarter-finals in Vienna and Beijing.
Fucsovics, who won on the Geneva clay the week before last year’s French Open, also played well in Australia this time last year.
Much lower ranked at the time, he made the final of a Challenger before using that form to propel himself to the last 16 of the Australian Open where it took eventual champion Roger Federer to halt his charge.
At 25/1, he looks worth an each-way play.
Top Half Play
In the top half, Ryan Harrison has potential at 16/1.
The American started his season with a loss in Brisbane, but only just. Nick Kyrgios beat him in a final-set tie-break with Harrison on the wrong end of 44 aces – one shy of the three-set ATP record.
Still, Harrison served 27 of his own, didn’t lose serve and played well enough. He should have more of chance to get into the rallies this week and the seeds in his quarter, Diego Schwartzman and Lucas Pouille, won’t strike fear into a player who made two ATP finals last season – most notably at this time of year in Brisbane.
Harrison has made the quarter-finals here in the past and has the chance to go further this time.
Fucsovics looks the better value – and if you are having only one bet choose him – but Harrison is a worthy back-up option.
Marton Fucsovics each way –
Ryan Harrison each way –
Auckland, New Zealand (outdoor hard)
It’s a Monday start in Auckland which means five matches in a maximum six days is the scenario for anyone bar the top four seeds, who all have byes.
For any player who has gone deep the previous week, that’s a potential issue – particularly with the Australian Open looming.
It’s already resulted in ante-post favourite and defending champion Roberto Bautista Agut withdrawing due to his title run in Doha.
Steve Johnson fills his seeded spot in the bottom half of the draw, which looks by far the weaker of the two.
Marco Cecchinato defied expectations in Doha where he made the semis so he’ll have his backers, while Philipp Kohlschreiber has a strong record at this event, one he won back in 2008. He’s also finished runner-up and reached two other semi-finals.
Still, age seemed to be catching up with the German last season and it is another player in his section who I prefer.
The arguments for and against
There’s also a nagging doubt in my mind when putting up Gael Monfils given his mercurial nature and injury record but it’s fair to say the start of the season is usually a good time to get with the Frenchman given he’s had the chance to rest his often-ailing body.
He won in Doha in his opening event of last season, while he’s also finished runner-up in Qatar on three other occasions. Overall, three of his seven career titles have come in the opening two months of the season.
As for his record here, Monfils has only played the tournament twice but he did make the semis on his last appearance in 2013.
He didn’t play last week, preferring to prepare by practising at Melbourne Park, so should be keen on getting plenty of matches under his belt.
The 32-year-old has a new coach, American Liam Smith, on board and has vowed to continue playing how he ended last season – aggressively, using his big weapons, the serve and forehand.
That gameplan worked well at the back end of last season when he was runner-up in Antwerp and was on course for another final in Vienna when injury struck again.
Monfils could face Kohlschreiber in round two but he holds an impressive 13-2 record against the German, having won the last five, plus all three on outdoor hard.
At 10/1, Monfils gets the vote.
A handful of others
The top half is led by John Isner, twice the champion here, but also a player who has a track record of withdrawing in the week before a Slam.
Youngsters Hyeon Chung and Denis Shapovalov also warrant respect.
If pushed for a bet in this section, however, I could be tempted by two players who looked in good nick at the Hopman Cup in Perth last week, namely David Ferrer and Cameron Norrie.
Ferrer won’t have too many chances left to add to his title haul – he’s due to retire in May at the Madrid Open – and this could be one of his best given both the way he played in Perth and his penchant for this event.
He’s won it on four occasions and made four other semi-finals, the most recent 12 months ago.
The Spaniard won two of his three singles matches last week, losing only 7-6 in the third to Alex Zverev.
The issue is his physical condition. He said in Perth: “I am not playing bad. The problem is that I can’t play more than two matches. My fitness is not the same – I have big pain.”
While he got rest days last week, that won’t be the case here and so the 25/1 makes less appeal.
British Bet Appeals
As for Norrie, he also went 2-1 in Perth with top-20 star Stefanos Tsitsipas among his victims.
The rising British star made the last four of similar 250-level hardcourt events in Atlanta and Los Cabos last summer. He went on to beat Borna Coric in Shenzhen and was a point away from defeating Isner in Vienna – a player he could meet again in the quarter-finals this week.
He has an awkward clash with Benoit Paire to negotiate in round one but a price of 25/1 is worth considering.
Gael Monfils each way –