The Rafa Open is finally here. The second Slam of the season, the only clay court slam on tour and the roughly half-way point of the season.
Oh, sorry, I meant the French Open.
The French Open has largely been the domain of one man, basically for the last decade. There are only four active players who have won a Roland Garros title and not many more who can even say they have been to the final (Thiem is the only active player to make the final and not win). It’s a crazy small, elite class. And it’s basically all Rafa’s fault, and probably to a smaller extent the ‘Big Four’s’ fault.
It makes this event the least fun to handicap of the four big events and the hardest to find value in. But, let’s give it a shot!
The First Quarter
The top portion of the bracket is headlined by the #1 seed in men’s tennis, Novak Djokovic. He is one of the four active players to have won this event and he has made the final four times (losing to Rafa twice and Stan once). He is also, notably, responsible for one of ONLY TWO defeats Nadal has ever suffered at this venue (and he didn’t even win that year, losing to Stan in the final!!). And the draw committee has rolled out the red carpet for Novak this year. His first three matches are potentially filled with qualifier spots and a 22-year-old Polish kid (who is quite good though). None of them should pose a problem and Novak should skate to the 4th round. This is the where the path may incline uphill a bit but, not much. His potential fourth-round opponent is Borna Coric. Coric is great on clay, has a title on the surface in the last 15 months, is one of the stars of the #nextGen of tennis and would present a valuable betting option had he landed elsewhere in the draw. As it is, Coric is 0–3 against Djokovic and has been slaughtered each time. So, the first major obstacle Novak will potentially face is Alex Zverev in the quarter-finals. Zverev has beaten Djokovic multiple times and on clay. Beyond Zverev, there is the potential of Dominic Thiem in the semi-finals, maybe the pre-eminent clay player on tour not named Nadal. And, of course, waiting in the finals is probably Rafael Nadal. Djokovic was +162 to Nadal last week in the Rome final. He’ll have to potentially run through Zverev and Thiem to even get to Rafa. A price of +225 or +250 doesn’t seem like it’s enough, even considering Novak is one of the best players of all time.
So, who else if a bettable option in the first quarter, if not Novak? Well, as just outlined, Coric would be an awesome option if not for Djokovic. The head-to-head history is just too one-sided. Pre-draw Coric was 66/1, post-draw he jumped to 100/1. Everyone is aware of his Djokovic-tied struggles. Bautista Agut and Fognini are talented players and good on clay but, it could be argued both are on the back-side of their careers and neither could make a deep run at a Slam in their primes, so it’s hard to argue they will make one this fortnight (QF at 2011 French is Fognini’s best ever result, QF at this years Aussie is Bautista’s best ever result). Clay is not Shapovalov’s favored surface and Lajovic obviously peaked at last month’s Monte Carlo Masters. Jaume Munar and Hubert Hurkacz are probably not ready yet and both would meet Novak in round three or earlier.
That leaves… the wunderkind. Is Zverev ever going to break through at a Slam? No time like the present, eh? Zverev has struggled mightily in 2019, with his only potential title coming this very weekend in Geneva (he is playing in the final Saturday vs Nic Jarry). Coming into Roland Garros Zverev will have played an unprecedented amount of tennis. He has entered a tournament every week of the calendar where there has been a tournament to enter since the end of February. He played Acapulco, Indian Wells, Miami, the tour took a week off, he then went to Marrakech, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Munich, Madrid, Rome and Geneva in succession. Will he be tired or will he have played himself into form? It’s hard to guess but, his price is at a level unseen since about mid-2017. After landing in Djokovic’s quarter Zverev’s price popped to +2500. That is tempting. With the late withdrawl of Nick Kyrgios you could make a case Zverev has an even easier path to the quarter-finals than Djokovic. The best option may be to wait and see how he performs in the Geneva final and in the first round at Roland Garros. After day one, if all looks right, the price should still be more than +2000 and it may be worth getting in (ever the Zverev optimist over here).
The Second Quarter
Is Dominic Thiem the prodigal son? The heir apparent? The next one? He isn’t one of the Big Four, he’s not Stan, and he’s not part of the ‘Lost Boys’ generation (just a tad too young), and he’s just a tad too old to be #nextgen. He’s truly on his own island and with his success on clay throughout the past two-three years and his success this year at Indian Wells, he is probably a credible threat at Roland Garros and the US Open for the foreseeable future. Can he do it this year? Well, his expectations have gotten so high that the price has been driven down to levels that are hard to get behind. Now at 6.5/1 (or +650) Thiem also has to deal with a potentially treacherous path. He was always going to have to go through both Nadal and Djokovic but, now he is also going to have to potentially go through Juan Martin DelPotro in the quarters and Verdasco in the 4th round. Before that, he’d have to face Cuevas in the third round. Those are all great clay players and Thiem’s weird mental struggles with Verdasco are well documented (0–4, across all surfaces, including a clay loss to him last week). That makes Thiem susceptible to a possible upset along the way.
With Delpo being possibly less than 100% (he has struggled to stay healthy, well, forever) this may be a quarter to attack. Delpo has a potentially tough path with Nic Jarry in round one, FAA in round three, Khachanov in round four and then Thiem in the quarters. The suggestions here being that it is doubtful his body holds up to that, especially if Jarry pushes him to a few tiebreaks in round one (definite over the total bet in that round one match). FAA and Khachanov are two guys that could possibly come out of that bottom section of the second quarter. They both offer huge outright prices and are good on clay (FAA is into his second clay final of the year in Lyon this week and Khachanov has a winning record on the surface already in his young career). It is easy to expect both guys to make the third round at the least. If FAA upsets Delpo (or can avoid him because he’s already out), you would have Khachanov at 80/1 and FAA at 125/1 playing each other in the 4th round with the chance to play in a quarter-final that may be devoid of Thiem. This is an appetizing prospect if you are looking for big, big numbered flyers in a Slam event.
The Third Quarter
The third quarter might be the most open quarter. Is Federer capable of maintaining his form across five matches to get out of the quarter? He looked great in the opening set of all his warm events and then faded hard in matches against Monfils and Theim and Coric. He’s still one of the greatest clay players of all time (five finals, including one title). But, age may be catching up with him. He’ll have to go through Matteo Berrettini and possibly Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat him in Australia just to get out of the quarter and then he’d be faced with beating Nadal and Djokovic back-to-back. He’s never been able to beat Nadal on clay, 2–13 on the red stuff, including 0–5 at Roland Garros. 20/1 may seem like a huge number for Federer on the outright market but, it actually might not be enough on clay and given a final three path of Tsitsipas, Nadal, Djoker.
Tsitsipas faces the same issue as Federer. He is undoubtedly a Slam champ at some point and like Thiem is a future possibility for Roland Garros. But, not this year. Not with this path. He would have to beat Fed-Nadal-Djoker in succession. Has that ever been done before?
The third quarter is out as a whole because even any long shot you took would have the same eventual end-game as Tsitsipas. That triumvirate also makes it impossible to hedge any number, no matter how big.
The Fourth Quarter
Hmm, how much can one person read about or listen to about Rafa Nadal on clay before they tune out? There is no doubt concern grew for Nadal as this 2019 clay season wore on without him winning a title. But, let’s put this all into perspective. The last five events he has entered he has went semi, semi, semi, semi, title. It’s not like he was losing in the first round during this clay swing. And he has lost to great players — even if you go back to the beginning of the season. At the Aussie Open he lost in the finals, to Novak. He lost in the second round in Acapulco (his only bad result of the year) in a tiebreak filled affair to Kyrgios, who went on to win the tournament. Then he pulled out of Indian Wells before facing Fed in the semis. He lost to Fog, Thiem, and Tsitsipas, before righting the ship and winning Rome over Novak last week. On the face of it, if this was any other player than Nadal, you would shrug your shoulders and say, this has been a great year. Moreover, at Roland Garros specifically, Nadal is a whopping 86–2. Think about that. He won the tournament the first time he attended and has won 11 titles in 14 appearances (his losses were to Soderling and Djokovic with one withdrawl). It’s insane how good he is here. He was +110 prior to the draw and immediately after the draw his number began to drop. +100 looked good after some studying and was taken. It has since moved to -110 and is still advisable. He will be a prohibitive five digit favorite in his first four or five matches, making a rollover parlay hard to get to even money by the end.
If you need a flyer in the bottom half of the bracket, Laslo Djere is your man. His price is 500/1 and the seed in his section of the fourth quarter is Kei Nishikori who has been vulnerable this year since winning in Brisbane. Djere has a title on clay this year and a few other solid results. With a little turmoil in the opening rounds he could find himself playing Nadal in the quarter-finals. There is very little chance to hedge, this is just a prayer but, it could be a fun because there is a high probability that he wins his first two matches.
Nadal +100 x2
Khachanov +8000 x0.25
FAA +12500 x 0.25
Djere +50000 x0.25
see if Zverev wins round one and then Zverev +2000 or better for x0.25