The clay season is in high gear. Monte Carlo is in the background now and we’re gunning for Madrid. The first steps to the bull ring are Budapest and Barcelona. And they couldn’t be more different — Budapest is brand new, this is season three there, and Barcelona is one of the most venerated and oldest tournaments on tour, being held every year since 1953. Another point of divergence would be the recent history of attendance — Barcelona is home to Rafael Nadal. He has attended this event fourteen times in his fifteen years on tour. Budapest, on the other hand, is the after-thought of this week on the calendar. There is very hit and miss attendance and there has only been one repeat winner in Bucharest/Budapest, Gilles Simon in ‘07/’08 (the tournament moved to Budapest in 2017). These could NOT be more different handicaps.
Budapest is a super interesting tournament. It usually isn’t graced with any top ten talents (hasn’t been one in the draw in the last five years), it is very rarely blessed with top 20 talent (Simon and Monfils in 2015, no one in 2016, Pouille in 2017, Pouille in 2018) and even top 30 guys routinely find it hard to make the trek (Karlo in 2015, Tomic in 2016, Fog and Karlo in 2017). The lack of big-name talent every year, with only one or two top 30 guys, means that anything goes. Garcia-Lopez and Jiri Vesely were finalists here in 2015, both barely in the top 50; Verdasco and Pouille were finalists in 2016, both ranked outside the top 70; Pouille returned in 2017 to win it as a top 20 guy but, he played Aljaz Bedene, who was ranked #69; last year the finalists were John Millman and Marco Cecchinato, ranked 91st and #100. Anything Goes.
To back that up, the event truly behaves like a 250 that produces a nice paycheque for the four seeded players with a bye. These guys, in 250’s, have a tendency to show up, take a cheque and go home early. Last year all four guys who got a bye in round one lost their first match. In fact, in the last four years, only five of the “big seeds” have made the semis and only one has ever made the final. That is not a great success rate. It’s actually horrible.
Who is NOT a big four seed that may be here on a paid vacation, coming off Monte Carlo and looking ahead to Madrid? Who is a lower seeded guy who may value this title and has a nice draw? Who is rocking a hold/break number over a 90% on a consistent basis on clay (Millman is the only finalist in the last four years to have a combined hold/break number below 90% on clay)?
Let’s write some guys off. Cilic is the highest seed but, he is in horrible form, has never been to this tournament before and is the perfect example of a guy who probably ducks out early. Basilashvili is another seeded guy with a bye but, who only has one match on clay in 2019 and had less than impressive numbers the last two years (despite a title in Hamburg in 2018). Pablo Cuevas is a big server on clay with tons of experience but he has been roughed up on the ATP tour this year and is coming off a Challenger title in Tunis on Sunday. Lajovic is also coming off a finals match on Sunday, the biggest match of his career. That leaves probably two big threats; Borna Coric and Marco Cecchinato. Coric is maybe the best clay player in the draw as his 111% combined hold/break number in 2018 is the highest of any player in Hungary. His price is +350 though and that is fairly low considering the history of winners here and the fact that he may have to go through Cecchinato and a finalist. Cecchinato is the defending champion so he probably values this week. He is also in the bottom half of the draw, will probably have to go through Coric and possibly through Hugues-Herbert and Hurkacz, two guys showing improving skills on the red dirt. Cecchinato is also the guy taking the most money. As Easter delayed this article, it also allowed time for the market to shift. Cecchinato has dropped from 11/1 to 8/1, making him the third favorite behind Coric and Cilic. That’s a decent move.
There is a better price on the board. The second quarter looks fairly wide open considering Basilashvili’s hot and cold streaks and Lajovic’s loss on Sunday. The beneficiary should be Laslo Djere. He showed earlier this year, on the Golden Swing that he could win clay titles, he has the requisite hold/break number as he is rocking a 106% in 2019, he has had success here before, making the semi-finals in 2017 after coming through qualifying and he has hopefully gotten some losses out of his system in Marrakech and Monte Carlo the last two weeks — Pella was in good form in Monte Carlo, pushing Rafa after putting Djere out and Sonego made the quarters in both Marrakech AND Monte Carlo. So, not losses to be dismissed. At 18/1 Djere is a solid option in Budapest.
What to do with a tournament where the headliner wins it almost every time he shows up? It’s not even like when Rafa loses it comes at the hands of a long-shot or benefits a long-shot. His three losses here were to #17 Alex Corretja in 2003 when Rafa was 17 years old. The tournament was won by #2 seed Carlos Moya. Rafa lost in 2014 to #20 Nicolas Almagro and the beneficiary was #4 Kei Nishikori. Rafa lost again in 2015, this time to #30 Fabio Fognini and again the beneficiary was Kei Nishikori. So, we need a really solid clay courter to upset Rafa and we need to pick the big seed who will benefit. Otherwise, throw a bunch of money at Rafa -163 and prey he rolls.
If you are looking for Hope, take heed — Rafa has only ever won Barcelona ONE time when he didn’t first win Monte Carlo. So, there may be value out there.
The alternative answer to Nadal, when Djokovic is not present is usually Thiem. Or it should be. But, Thiem is in Rafa’s half of the draw and would probably have to face Tsitsipas if it’s not Rafa. There is an argument to be made that the second quarter is the easiest though. At 6/1 there is probably more value to be had in the bottom half, away from the famous Spaniard.
Zverev? Well, he has made it to the quarter-finals in exactly one tournament in 2019, Acapulco. And he hasn’t won two matches in a row since Acapulco. Fog is coming off an incredible Monte Carlo title and Medvedev also went deep last week. That leaves…. the guy who twice benefited from Rafa exiting early here. Nishikori started 2019 hot and has since cooled off considerably, this is a venue he is comfortable with and he has a draw that should allow him to heat back up. His price is incredibly high, at 22/1, which seems like a great number considering Zverev is 7/1. Kei Nishikori, you’re my only Hope.
If you are looking for the big, big number that you can maybe hedge, if you don’t like any big name options and are looking for an alternative to Rafa, the two guys who stick out are Christian Garin and FAA. If Fog no-shows, which could be expected, and Nishikori continues his spring swoon, then the third quarter is kind of wide-open. Garin showed he could win on tour, coming off a title in Houston and a final in Sao Paolo, both on clay. He has a nice draw, with a decent first round match against Klizan but then possibly it opens up if Fog loses. FAA gets a bye and then maybe Kohl, which is winnable, and FAA showed in Miami he can beat big names. Nishikori projects as a tougher out than Fog, given Monte Carlo’s result and Garin’s number is bigger than FAA’s. So, a hail mary on Garin looks like fun.
Nishikori +2200 x 0.5
Garin +20000 x 0.1