What have we learned already this year?
The Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome Masters events provided us with a superb opportunity to get some current clay data on the ATP contenders for the French Open.
The only other player in the field who has a positive last 50 record against top 10 players on clay is Nadal’s great rival, Novak Djokovic (34-16)
Rafa Nadal dominated - prior to defeat to Dominic Thiem in the Italian capital - plus Novak Djokovic returned to peak level in Italy but was then brought back down to earth by young-gun Alexander Zverev in the final; there are two strong favourites to take the title.
Conditions in Paris can be described aptly as almost identical to average. In the last three years at Roland Garros, 76.8% of service games have been held, with the 12-month ATP clay mean being 76.2%. The mean aces per game figure at the venue of 0.37 is exactly the same as the ATP clay average. Bearing this in mind, it is very unlikely that a particular player genre will benefit from the conditions.
Analysing the favourites
This year’s closeness to the norm is demonstrated further by the fact that the usual suspects are dominating the market. Rafa Nadal won nine titles in ten years (between 2005 and 2014) although the Spaniard - during a period of decline - failed to make the final in both 2015 and 2016.
Novak Djokovic, after being runner-up in 2012, 2014 and 2015, finally won his maiden French Open title last year, defeating Andy Murray in the final - the only time the Scotsman has reached the final at the venue.
Conditions in Paris can be described aptly as almost identical. Bearing this in mind, it is very unlikely that a particular player genre will benefit from the conditions.
Nadal’s form going into the event could not be much better - the left-hander won 17 consecutive matches on clay prior to his quarter-final defeat against Dominic Thiem in Rome, and in these 18 matches on his favourite surface in 2017 he has held serve 86.3% and broken opponents 39.9% (combined 126.2%) of the time.
These numbers are very similar to his 12-month data, which come in at 125.8% and considering that anything in excess of 120% is elite level, Nadal’s level is beyond even this glowing description.
Indeed, no other player can come remotely close to Nadal’s level in the last 12 months on clay - the Spaniard has also won 38 of his last 50 matches against top 10 opponents on clay - and Nadal’s status as favourite (currently available at 1.909*) looks utterly justifiable.
With such a big discrepancy between Nadal and Djokovic’s hold/break numbers, bettors must decide whether the level that Djokovic exhibited in Rome will return in Paris.
The only other player in the field who has a positive last 50 record against top 10 players on clay is Nadal’s great rival, Novak Djokovic (34-16). Unsurprisingly, the Serb is the next player in the combined hold/break rankings at 114.6%.
With such a big discrepancy between Nadal and Djokovic’s hold/break numbers, bettors must decide whether the level that Djokovic exhibited in Rome against Juan Martin Del Potro and Dominic Thiem - where he looked back to his best - will return in Paris. If it does, he can certainly threaten Nadal. Djokovic is currently 3.700* to take the title.
A chance for the emerging talent?
Dominic Thiem, already mentioned as being the only player who has beaten Nadal on clay this year is the remaining contender priced in single figures, with the Austrian available at a current 9.600. Statistically, in the last 12 months on clay, there isn’t much between Thiem (113.7%) and Djokovic, and prior to the defeat he suffered at Djokovic’s hands in Rome his 2017 data was better than this level.
Question marks still surround the young prospect - he has only progressed past the last 16 once in a Grand Slam (French Open semi-final last year). Until he improves his record at the highest level there will be continual doubts that he is able to replicate his peak in the best of five set format, where avoiding accumulated fatigue is critical.
Thiem’s propensity to play many matches, entering too many tournaments and travelling between continents regularly is likely to make him more of a victim to this accumulated fatigue than most.
The best of the rest
Priced between 14.00 and 20.00 are the trio of Andy Murray (14.160*), Stan Wawrinka (19.210*) and Alexander Zverev (15.280*), and there are certainly extreme doubts about the current level of the former two players.
With Murray, analysis of his early round performances is vital - as the top seed he is likely to face several virtual byes.
Both Murray and Wawrinka had three bad defeats in the April and May clay Masters events, with Murray being beaten by Albert Ramos, Borna Coric and Fabio Fognini - all as sub 1.50 favourite - while Pablo Cuevas, Benoit Paire and John Isner defeated Wawrinka who was also in the same price range.
With Murray, analysis of his early round performances is vital - as the top seed he is likely to face several virtual byes - while Wawrinka has entered this week’s warm-up event in Geneva; so bettors will able to have another opportunity to work out the Swiss’ level.
As for Zverev, the current price is the shortest he has been for a Grand Slam by some distance, and while he recorded his first Masters event victory in Rome, his hold/break stats - both in the last 12 months and in 2017 are a fair bit below the best non-Nadal contenders.
On this basis it is difficult to imagine a repeat of last week in Rome, and the 20-year-old should consider a run to the semi-finals as a very successful tournament.
Outsiders to keep an eye on
Of the outsiders priced in the 40.00-100.00 range, Nick Kyrgios (44.490*), David Goffin (76.850*) and Kei Nishikori (44.490*) seem the most worthy of discussion. Goffin (112.6%) has very strong hold/break stats and a far from disastrous 5-9 record against top 10 opposition on the surface.
Kyrgios, as many have said, is a big stage player but has also suffered from injury, not to mention a lack of motivation - I’ve previously written about his reputation for ‘tanking’. However, if he gets his game together, he will be a major contender; although there is still a concern regarding his return game being good enough to win seven best of five set matches in a row.
The tournament is on Nadal’s racquet, but should the Spaniard slip up, then there will be other contenders - led by Djokovic - ready to take the title.
As for Nishikori, his talent has never been in doubt - it is his weak physical nature that is the main issue. Now suffering from a wrist injury that forced his withdrawal from Madrid, bettors will need to make their mind up as to his condition - as Wawrinka, he is lining up in Geneva this week.
Other long-shot contenders include Marin Cilic (good hold/break stats but bad tiebreak records and is just 4-14 vs top 10 players on clay), Juan Martin Del Potro, although I very much doubt his backhand is good enough anymore at the highest level, and the improving Albert Ramos, who made a superb run to the final in Monte Carlo.
Players that data does not favour include Grigor Dimitrov, who has a woeful record on clay in the last two years, Roberto Bautista-Agut, who has never beaten a top 10 player on clay, and Milos Raonic, who has fitness issues and has a similarly poor 2-14 record against top 10 players on the surface.
To summarise, the tournament is on Nadal’s racquet, but should the Spaniard slip up, there will be other contenders - led by Djokovic - ready to take the title. With only Nadal out in front statistically, we should get a very open tournament indeed.
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