The clay season is in FULL swing. We’re in the heart of it now with the Masters 1000 in Madrid; the first of two back-to-back Masters and the first of three monster events in four weeks. The tennis world seems hyper-focused on Madrid this week as there are myriad storylines to follow — almost every single “big” name on tour is here this week (only Anderson, Isner and Raonic are missing from the TOP FIFTY; unheard of attendance), clay god Rafa may not be 100% (didn’t win Monte Carlo OR Barcelona), Fed is back on clay, Thiem is on fire, and Zverev is conversely maybe suffering a crisis of confidence. SO many angles to handicap this week.
Let’s dig in.
Despite concerns about Rafa’s health and Djokovic’s recent performance/motivation, they are still heavy, heavy favorites and they bookend the draw this week as the #1 and #2 seeds. The advice here though, at these prices and with their 2019 track record, is to fade the two clay giants. Statistically, they are still rightly priced short. Rafa is +150 and Djoker is +200. But, it’s really hard to advise buying 2/1 outrights on players who have to win five matches in a field containing every landmine on tour and who have both recently struggled in big matches — Rafa was dismantled by Djokovic in Melbourne, and then similarily routined on his favored surface by Fognini and Thiem in back-to-back weeks. Maybe he’s not healthy, maybe the gap is narrowing with the rest of the top tier of players on tour. Either way, it’s hard to see Nadal running through this field.
This is also the major clay event that he has won the least and it may be due to the extreme elevation the tournament is played at. With over 2,000 feet of elevation, this tournament is amoung the four or five highest altitudes tennis is played at on tour- that helps balls move faster and plays to bigger serves. In Djokovic’s case, he has won this event twice, but the last two years haven’t been pretty. And really, 2019 hasn’t been pretty outside the Aussie Open. It’s easy to make the case that Djokovic is solely focused on big game hunting at this stage of his career. He already has the most Masters Series titles by quite a stretch and it’s hard to see either Fed or Nadal catching him given their age, and likewise, it’s also hard to see any younger player catching him given the lack of dominance any one player has displayed. His performance in the non-Slam events this year would back up this theory-second round loss in Indian Wells to Kohlschreiber, third round loss in Miami to RBA, and quarter-final loss in Monte Carlo to Medvedev… a massive favorite in all three. How does one or two wins this week and then a look-ahead to Rome and Roland Garros sound?
So, where to look to oppose the Big Two. The idea would be to look in the second and third quarters and hope someone takes care of Nadal and Djokovic without actually having to figure out who that player is.
The second quarter seems kind of soft outside of the two big seeds. It is pretty easy to make an argument for a Federer-Thiem quarter-final. Federer is more amazing on clay than people may remember (two titles here, three finals here, four finals in Rome, four finals in Monte Carlo, five French Open finals and one title). He just always runs into this Rafa guy. Fed hasn’t played on clay in over three years but you’d have to guess it’s like riding a bike, you don’t “forget”. And by all appearances, he’s been practising on the surface for the last two weeks. Madrid is at an elevation which should help Fed’s already amazing serve and as a former winner here, he is obviously comfortable. Thiem is certainly a concern. He is maybe the hottest player on tour — winning Indian Wells and Barcelona. He’s made the finals here back-to-back years, losing to Nadal and Zverev, and he has a solid serve, helped by elevation, in his own right. This came down to simple math — Thiem is 7/1, Fed is 18/1. Should they meet in the quarters and Fed looks good getting there that match should be lined close to a pick’em. At 18/1 there are lots of options at that point, especially if Novak is NOT looming in the semi-final.
The third quarter may be the most fun — Tsitsipas, Zverev, Khachanov, Coric. Those are four big #nextgen names, none older than 22 and all ranked in the top 15. The one with the easiest path is potentially Coric. He gets a struggling Pouille (Bordeaux Challenger title notwithstanding) and then maybe an Alex DeMinaur who hasn’t had any clay success on tour yet.
Coric is no slouch on clay himself, with a title and another final in Marrakech. He also has a decent history here in Madrid. He’s been here three times and while he’s only made the quarters once, his three losses are to Djokovic, Thiem and Thiem. There is nothing wrong with that. At 50/1, he also has, by far, the best price of the four stars in the third quarter. It’s a long shot. But, Khachanov is not in great form, having made only one quarter-final in 2019 and being on a four match losing streak; neither is Zverev in good form, not making ANY deep runs in 2019 other than a finals appearance in Acapulco; and lastly Tsitsipas is having a great follow up to his breakout 2018, with a semi-final in Melbourne, a title in Marseilles, a final in Dubai and another final in Estoril (possibly a title there) but, will he be out of gas? Tsitty will have gone from Monte Carlo to Barcelona, to Estoril to Madrid with no break. Coric, at 50/1 is the pick.
Just go in at “half-units” this week. Rafa is still Rafa. Djoker is still Djoker. And Thiem is the next best thing to Rafa on clay since ‘2016 Djokovic’ or ‘2009 Federer’. These two outrights should provide some value late in the week though, with a real shot at some semi-finals.
Federer 18/1, x0.5
Coric 50/1, x0.5