The second hard court season gets underway in earnest with two events in North America, just as clay finally winds down, with a final tournament in Austria.
The tour is split into three pretty distinct time zones (tennis from 5am EST to about 1am EST everyday) with three pretty different conditions and three very disparate fields. So, there is lots of variety and plenty of angles to dig into. This is the last week with three tournaments running concurrently until late October, so let’s enjoy all the action and try to find some winners
The last clay tourney of the year produces some of the most outrageous results, which shouldn’t be surprising given its spot on the calendar. Most of the upper echelon players have moved on to North America to tune-up for the US Open, so this field is routinely made up of true clay courters, hanging on for a final shot at some clay prize money, and Challenger guys who have an opportunity for direct entry into an ATP event. In the last four years, there has only been a total of SIX players from the top 30 who have entered Kitzbuhel and the only top 10 guy who routinely shows up is Dominic Thiem, and he is from Austria. Winners here in the past few years have included Martin Klizan, Paolo Lorenzi and Philip Kohlschreiber, while finalists have been as random as Denis Istomin, Joao Sousa and a young Basilashvili. Given Thiem’s penchant for succumbing to home-cooking and dropping out early (7 trips, 4 first round exits) this tournament is basically wide open.
One thing to consider is elevation. Kitzbuhel is about 750m or 2,500 feet above sea level, which makes it unique on tour. Certain players are good at elevation and have repeatedly done well in places like Quito, Sao Paulo, and Gstaad. The hope here is someone, with a big serve or who is super comfortable here in Austria, from the first quarter can have a good day and put Thiem out before the semis, as is his m.o. Leo Mayer holds serve more than 80% of the time on clay and should be helped by the altitude. Kohlscreiber lives in Kitzbuhel and considers this his “home” tournament (he infamously withdrew from a semi-final in Hamburg in 2017, leading to the Mayer-Mayer final, only to show up in Kitzbuhel the next week and skate to a title). Kohl has won this tournament twice and made another final. Either of these guys could shock a sleepy Thiem.
If that happens, the second quarter looks ripe for an outright. Verdasco is the big seed and he is having a less than stellar 2019. The pick who looks the most appetizing in the second quarter is Carbelles Baena. RCB won Quito last year and is obviously comfortable at altitude. He is coming from Gstaad last week, which is also at extreme elevation, so he won’t have acclimatization issues. His combined hold/break numbers are at the magical 105% in 2019 and have been as high as 113% in 2017, so he is solid on clay and can compete with the big boys on a good day. He has the weakest quarter and at 20/1, he is the best bang for the buck in the top half.
The bottom half looks wide open. PCB doesn’t seem 100% fit after he ran out of gas in Hamburg against Rublev. Lajovic is coming off a title in Umag and the last time (and first time) he made a final, earlier this year in Monte Carlo, he lost his next five matches. Pablo Cuevas hasn’t won a title outside of South America since 2014 (although he does have multiple titles at altitude in Sao Paulo) and Martin Klizan, despite being the defending champ, has been all over the map recently (both in travel and results). The one longer shot worth considering is Jaume Munar, who has a big 28/1 price. He has had a rough go of it lately, with poor results but, if he comes out with a big win in round one and looks sharp, he may be a mid-week addition.
Washington is one of the coolest tournaments on tour. A 500 level event that (like Miami and Indian Wells) invites far more than a normal 500 event and as a joint-WTA event, runs slates deep into the night (remember Andy Murray playing in the wee hours of the morning here?). It doesn’t attract the top 5 generally, but, everyone from #6-#50 in the world is usually in attendance. A deep field. The other regularity is that top players make the final. Big servers and guys with really elite hold/break numbers on hard courts. The last four finals have included Nishikori, Isner, Monfils, Karlovic, Kevin Anderson, Zverev and Deminaur. Only DeMinaur, on that list, holds serve less than 80% of the time on hards but, he, of course, breaks serve over 30% of the time. Only Isner, on that list, had a combined hold/break on hard courts of less than 105% but, he, of course, is Isner and is largely an outlier. To further the point, three of the four semi-finalists last year had a hold/break number over 105% and the one who didn’t was Tsitsipas who, of course, was on his way to being a top 10 player.
This is a chalky tournament, despite the big field and lack of Big 3 attendance. So, it’s best to look for a seeded player with a bye, who has a big serve (say, over 83–85% hold), who can also break serve enough to get that combined number over 105%, and who thrives on hard courts. Tsitsipas is obviously an option, given his semi-final run last year and subsequent success in Toronto. But, at only 7/1 and with a serious lack of success on grass, he is probably a pass. Anderson and Isner are both still recovering from injury — Isner didn’t even look dominant winning Newport and Anderson struggled to win any matches on the grass swing. Marin Cilic is likewise struggling in 2019 and Karen Khachanov has had better success on grass and clay than on hards, despite his win in Paris last year.
The three players who look the best are Daniil Medvedev, FAA, and Milos Raonic. Meds has the best pure hard court stats in the field. He breaks serve at an incredible rate on outdoor hards and can also hold his own serve over 80% of the time. Meds hasn’t made a ton of noise since early in the clay season and he wasn’t blessed with a great draw, as he is in the same quarter as FAA. His outright price is also pretty low. FAA has the toughest draw of these three, having to face a potential path of Opelka, Cilic and Meds. At only 12/1 that seems dicey.
That leaves Raonic. He holds serve over 90% of the time on hards and breaks just enough to get to 105% combined. He has won here before (2014) and he gets the best draw of the seeded players. He is super comfortable in tiebreaks and wins almost 70% of his hard court matches. At 10/1, he is the pick in Washington.
What do you do with this mess? Los Cabos is only three years in. With most of the tour in Europe prior to this week and this being on the west coast, attendance is…. sparse. Only Delpo last year has ever attended as a top ten player and the rest of the ‘star’ entrants have been of 20–30 rankings variety. It still ends up being chalky because those players in the 20’s and 30’s who choose to come to Mexico are still so far above the rest of the field; last year there were 20 players ranked outside the top 100 in the main draw. This being the case, the final here has seen the top two seeds contest all the finals, and the only player to break into final who was not a top-four seed was Kokkinakis, who is an uber-talented, if always injured young Aussie. Now in its fourth year the tournament has it’s best field yet. That being the case, there are plenty of clay-centric players in the draw and the motivation of the higher-ranked players could all be questioned. One guy who sticks out is Diego Schwartzman. He hasn’t won a title in 2019 despite making a few deep runs, he actually has really good hard court numbers, and he has possibly the easiest quarter to escape from. So many of these players have to bounce from Atlanta or Europe, to Mexico and then back to the east coast again next week. It’s a super hard tournament to cap match to match due to those travel and motivational issues (how many guys are here for a beach vacation before the hard court swing really gets going next week?) Schwartzman has the most consistent hard court numbers and the possibly the most motivation; he’s the guy this week.