The Monte Carlo Masters is the first ATP Masters event on the calendar played on clay. Our tennis columnist, Dan Weston, ranks this as one of his favourite tournaments, and returns to preview the outright market...
"Cilic has been strong on clay in the last 12 months, holding 85.3% and breaking 31.9% (combined 117.2%) making his data the best in the field, with the exception of Nadal."
Slow conditions expected for the first clay Masters of 2018
The glitz and glamour of Monte Carlo is the setting for this week's action on the ATP Tour, with a prize fund of almost €5m a suitable reward for the players good enough to make the 56-man draw.
Historically, conditions at the Monte Carlo Country Club are very slow, with just 72.5% of service games being held across the last three years at the venue, a figure which is 4.7% down on the ATP clay mean of 77.2%. As you may expect from this, big-servers are not suited at all in what are very different conditions to what was witnessed last week on the quicker clay in Houston, and in Monte Carlo in this time period, a mere 0.30 aces per game were served, down from the 0.38 ATP clay average.
Nadal odds-on for outright glory
On this basis, expect plenty of breaks of serve and comebacks in matches, while return-orientated players are likely to thrive here, and in particular, the King of Clay, Rafa Nadal. The Spaniard won here eight years in a row between 2005 and 2012, and also took the title in both 2016 and 2017 after a four-year gap. In the intervening three events, Novak Djokovic won the event twice.
Rafa is indeed the favourite to be celebrating on Sunday, with the Exchange market pricing him at a current [1.64] for glory, and he's one of eight players receiving first-round byes and likely to begin their campaign either on Tuesday, or more probably, Wednesday.
With Nadal such a dominant favourite - his clay data is superb, but he's not been fully fit this year in reality following retirement in the Australian Open quarter-final - no other player is in single-digit numbers for the title, which gives us some scope for trading or each-way value.
Tough draw for talented Thiem
Worth mentioning is Dominic Thiem. The Austrian should enjoy these slow conditions on his favourite surface, and has an excellent 23-6 record on the dirt in the last 12 months, holding serve 83.9% and breaking opponents 31.1% (combined 115.0%) - data which is in world-class territory. Unfortunately for Thiem, he was placed in Nadal's top half of the draw - as well as the unseeded Djokovic, whose potential level is impossible to assess - and has a problematic quarter-final in prospect.
Data indicates the younger Zverev is over-rated on clay
Given this, perhaps scouting for options in the bottom half of the draw is the most viable proposition. Seeded players with byes in this segment are Lucas Pouille, Alexander Zverev, Pablo Carreno-Busta and Marin Cilic, while unseeded players with prospects in this bottom half of the draw include Richard Gasquet, Diego Schwartzman, Fabio Fognini, Kyle Edmund, and the winner of the mouthwatering Kei Nishikori and Tomas Berdych first-round clash, due to be played today.
The younger Zverev brother, at [10.5], is the market second favourite, but doesn't have the best clay data (just a 108.9% combined hold/break percentage in the last 12 months), and his 16-4 clay record in this time period indicates he won a ton of tight matches, as is often the case with him. He was also somewhat schooled by Nadal in the Davis Cup recently. Perhaps there may be some handicap opportunities to oppose the young German in matches during the coming clay season.
Cilic can provide threat from the bottom half of the draw
Carreno-Busta has been inconsistent this year, while Pouille's data on clay in the last 12 months falls into the solid but unspectacular (108.6% combined hold/break percentage), so the obvious choice in this bottom half of the draw looks like Cilic.
Cilic has been strong on clay in the last 12 months, holding 85.3% and breaking 31.9% (combined 117.2%) making his data the best in the field, with the exception of Nadal. He's arguably not been at his best since losing to Roger Federer in five sets in the Australian Open final, but dropped just eight games across six sets against Kazakhstan in the Davis Cup just over a week ago on clay and is well-rested coming into this event.
He opens with a bye and then either Pablo Cuevas or Fernando Verdasco - both are inconsistent these days - before a potential round three with Milos Raonic, another player whose level is tough to judge on clay currently. This sounds fairly tough, but in a 56-man Masters draw, easy draws don't tend to occur, and players will have to perform well to make it through to the latter stages.
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