Djokovic and Thiem create more questions than answers in Belgrade
For the most part, bigger names flock to the 500 event in Barcelona this week, with a pretty high quality field in prospect, particularly among the 16 players receiving first-round byes.
Over in Belgrade, the round of 32 looks a little weaker, although it is boosted by the return of Dominic Thiem, who has played just a solitary Challenger match since June last year due to a wrist problem. Novak Djokovic is another player who has been pretty inactive of late, for different reasons, and features as top seed in what is his home event.
Back to back losses for Djokovic is hardly what he's been used to. He lost to Jiri Vesely in Dubai in February, and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina last week in Monte Carlo, so comes into the event with two defeats in two tournaments - how long has it been since Djokovic hadn't won a title in a season by this point?
Market still keen to support Djokovic
However, the market is still very keen to keep Djokovic onside. While the fact that qualifiers are still being played makes analysing outrights pretty tricky, Djokovic is the overwhelming pre-tournament favourite at just over even money. Andrey Rublev, at around the 5.04/1 mark, looks a realistic second-favourite, with the likes of Thiem, as well as Karen Khachanov, well into double-digits even as next-best in the market.
Djokovic's draw couldn't have been a great deal better, although Thiem in the quarter-finals could be a fascinating prospect. Both players, however, have a level that is pretty difficult to assess right now, and there are a lot of intangibles in this tournament. Khachanov, who has a pretty easy quarter two in prospect, looks one of the more interesting bigger-priced players, although I'm not sure the slow clay in prospect would be hugely to his liking.
Alcaraz should enjoy slow conditions in Barcelona
Over in Barcelona, I'm also anticipating conditions to be a touch on the slow side. Service hold and service points won percentages are slightly lower in recent years than the ATP mean figures, as is aces per game and tiebreaks per set - all pointers to pretty slow conditions. In theory, this should suit the more return-orientated players in the draw, and the dominance of Rafa Nadal in recent years, and also several titles for Kei Nishikori, plus some true clay-courters reaching the final, also back up this point.
This should, in theory, be a slight issue for the serve-orientated top seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has picked up a pretty tough draw as well with Carlos Alcaraz in his bracket. Tsitsipas will certainly have his supporters after picking up the title in Monte Carlo, but it's actually the 18-year-old Alcaraz with better data by some distance this season across surfaces - he's won over 7% more points on return.
However, the tournament winner market isn't stupid, and has gone against the seedings, making Alcaraz a marginal favourite at around 4.03/1.
To me, Alcaraz looks like a class above the field.
His upside is huge, and his numbers this year are already pretty close to elite level - could he have the same dominance on clay in the future as Rafa Nadal has had over the last 10-15 years? It's certainly extremely possible.
From the bottom half of the draw, there are plenty of players who will consider themselves with a chance of making the final, including the likes of Diego Schwartzman and Casper Ruud, plus the dangerous unseeded trio of Lorenzo Musetti, Sebastian Korda plus the surprise Monte Carlo finalist, Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.
However, I think the winner in Barcelona will come from the top half of the draw and Alcaraz looks a very justified favourite to be that man.
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