Last Updated: 2019-02-03
The tennis calendar gets back underway, in earnest, this week with three tournaments spanning the globe.
The European indoor hard court season gets going with tournaments in Sofia, Bulgaria and Montpellier, France, while the Golden Swing gets the clay season kickstarted in South America.
Let’s dig right in as there is obviously tons to handicap.
If you are an east coaster who likes early morning tennis, then Sofia is for you. With action getting started every day at 4am est, you can wake up to tennis all week long.
This is only the fourth edition of the Sofia Open so, there isn’t a whole lot of history to look back on and factor in. The tournament has suffered from lack of star power in the past (last year there were only four top 50 players in the field and the final was Mirza Basic and Mariusz Copil) but, benefits this year from some incredible attendance. Top 20 players such as Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev, Roberto Bautista Agut and Stefanos Tsitsipas all headline this time around.
In its short history, Sofia has presented as a pretty fast track. Over 40% of the matches ever contested in Sofia have featured a tiebreak which, while super unofficial, usually means breaks are hard to come by and the court is on the faster end of the spectrum. Sofia has also been pretty ‘chalky’ in its short three year history. In 2016, the top seed, RBA won it (terrible field though). In 2017 the second and third seeds, Dimitrov and Goffin met in the finals. And last year, despite the wacky final, top seed Wawrinka made the semis before being upset by the eventual champion.
So, we’re looking for big favorites who can hold serve, who are comfortable on a fast track. We’re also probably looking for someone who is fresh and avoided playing in a Davis Cup tie over the weekend. Last year, Copil and Seppi were the only two players in the field to win a match after competing in the Davis Cup (Seppi was eliminated in round two and Copil played his rubbers in neighbouring Romania).
All four of the big favorites are enticing for different reasons but how do you take an outright in a field this lopsided, that is only 4/1 or 5/1? It is really disappointing that books essentially took a pass this week, lining four different guys at 5/1. If chalk prevails, as expected, both semi-finals will be lined tightly and you would have to choose between crossing your fingers and sweating a pick’em semi-final and a pick’em final or hedging twice. That is not ideal.
One player stands out that could disrupt a top four seeds semi-finals. Stan Wawrinka. He has the big service game (90% hold rate) that works indoors (three indoor finals in his career), he was here last year so he knows the venue (lost in the semis), and he has a solid career record against the big seed in his quarter (2–0 vs Khachanov: 76,76 and 76,64). Lastly, Stan didn’t play in the Davis Cup over the weekend while Khachanov did. At 8/1 he seems the best look.
Montpellier mirrors Sofia in many ways. While it is, obviously, much older, the conditions are similar. Montpellier sees tiebreaks featured in over 40% of the matches on record, just like Sofia. Montpellier also has super chalky results. And those results are also super French. Since moving to Montpellier in 2010 there has been a Frenchman in the final every single year. Richard Gasquet has been that Frenchman most of the time, making six straight finals (he is injured this year) and the title has been won by a top-four seed every time, including the #1 seed three times.
That all means we are looking for a top-seeded player, someone who holds serve in the high 80’s percentile (at least) and preferably someone who is French.
There are multiple options that fit that criteria. First would be Lucas Pouille. He is the top seed, he holds serve 85% of the time, he’s French, and he is the defending champion. It’s hard to argue against any of that. Pouille also holds three indoor hard court titles in the last three years. On top of all that, he has a cakewalk of a draw. The only drawback one could argue for would be a drop off from the Aussie Open. Pouille played miraculous tennis in Melbourne, making the semi-final. He was subsequently destroyed by Novak Djokovic. Is there going to be a letdown? A hangover? At 5/1 the price seems too low to find out.
Shapovalov and Simon are two of the other seeded players — Simon is French but he has been here every year and is a very average 7–7, having never made a deep run in Montpellier and Shapo is coming off a Davis Cup run where he played three tough matches in less than 24 hours. Neither player holds serve more than 83% of the time either.
The fourth seeded player is Goffin. He doesn’t hold serve quite enough, his ability to break serve (29%) may be compromised a bit on the quicker surface and he doesn’t seem in great form (he has two wins in 2019, over Christian Garin and Mariusz Copil); he suffered straight-set losses to both Medvedev and Ricardis Berankis this year.
Two players who fit most of the criteria are Tomas Berdych and Jo Tsonga. Both have depressingly small outright numbers but, check all the boxes. Tsonga is rounding back into pre-injury, pre-fatherhood form; when healthy in previous seasons he routinely held serve 90% of the time (92% in 2018, 89% in 2017), he’s French, he’s 6–3 in Montpellier having made the semi’s here last year and he is in the second quarter of the draw, which has maybe the most attackable seeded player in Gilles Simon. Tsonga is 9–3 lifetime against Simon, including being 9–1 on hard courts (two of Simon’s wins came on clay). At 8/1 this is bettable.
Berdych has a terrible outright number. But, his case is compelling. Maybe nobody on tour has had such a surprisingly good start to the season (outside of Bautista Agut?). Berdych made the final in Doha and was running hot in Melbourne until he ran into Nadal. He is holding serve at 89% this season and he is super comfortable here in Montpellier, despite not being French, having won the event in his only other appearance. His path is wide open, having a sub-par Goffin as the seeded player, a qualifier in his first match and then Benoit Paire (does he try this week?) and Filip Krajinovic (struggled through Davis Cup this weekend) rounding out his quarter. Even at 4/1 this is hard to pass on.
The Golden Swing gets underway in a new location this year. The Quito event has been replaced by Cordoba, Argentina as the first clay event on the calendar. The Golden Swing is routinely, and almost exclusively, attended by South American players and the Spanish and Italian players that prefer clay. There are three Italians (plus four more in qualifying), five Spaniards, and eleven South Americans of varying backgrounds (plus nine more in qualifying) in the draw. You would think the winner was coming from one of that group.
With no site data to go off of and motivation questionable at a new venue, let’s go the opposite way and look right off the board.
Fognini is the big seed. He has publically stated that he may never play the Golden Swing again. So, how motivated is he to be here? His first opponent will possibly be Aljaz Bedene, someone he has beaten eight straight times. Here’s the thing though; clay is Bedene’s best surface, he has been to three clay finals in his career, one as recently as last year, and if Fog doesn’t care Bedene’s outright price is a joke. He is one of only eight players in the draw to have multiple seasons with a combined hold/break number of 100% or better. At 125/1 this is worth a few dollars.
The most attackable quarter in the draw might be the third quarter where PCB is the big seed. He has proven recently that he may be a better hard court player than a clay courter and there are two interesting players in his draw. Cameron Norrie is super young and green. And he is British; not a traditional clay powerhouse. But, Norrie is proving clay may be his best surface; he went to the semi-finals in Lyon last year and authored some amazing matches in Davis Cup on clay against stars such as Bautista Agut and Ramos Vinolas. At 25/1 he may have a shot to surprise PCB.
Nicolas Jarry is someone who has great potential on clay. He is a massive guy, who throws down serves from 6’6. He lives and dies by the tiebreak but, if his serve is on he should be successful. He has two easy matches to get started where the highest ranked player he could face is #83 Pablo Andujar. The only concern is travel, as Jarry is making the trek from Austria, where he competed for Chile in the Davis Cup, to Argentina. Hopefully, the fatigue is offset by the huge Chilean win and the chance to play as close to home soil as he is going to get (this can essentially be considered his “home” tournament, being in western Argentina). At 18/1 this is a good bet if he got some sleep on the plane.
Wawrinka +800, x0.5
Tsonga +800, x0.5
Berdych +400, x1
Jarry +1800, x0.5
Norrie +2500, x0.25
Bedene +12500, x0.25
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