The upcoming week sees the clay season on the ATP Tour continue apace, with two tournaments starting in Barcelona and Budapest this morning. Our tennis columnist, Dan Weston, returns to preview the action...
"With Rafa Nadal taking his 11th Monte Carlo title with ease last week, the Spaniard looks virtually unbeatable on clay. In fact, it looks virtually impossible for his rivals to even win a set, and the King of Clay has now won an incredible 36 sets in a row on his favourite surface."
Nadal looking virtually unbeatable on clay following Monte Carlo triumph
With Rafa Nadal taking his 11th Monte Carlo title with ease last week, the Spaniard looks virtually unbeatable on clay. In fact, it looks virtually impossible for his rivals to even win a set, and the King of Clay has now won an incredible 36 sets in a row on his favourite surface, in a run which goes back to the quarter-finals of the Rome Masters in mid-May last year, when Dominic Thiem shocked Nadal in straight sets.
All this considered, Nadal is unsurprisingly a heavy favourite to win another title this week in Barcelona. From his first title in 2005, in the 13 tournaments since then, he's won a stunning 10 titles, only missing out in 2010, 2014 and 2015. If he's dominant in Monte Carlo, he's equally so here in Barcelona.
Exchange prices illustrate Nadal dominance on clay
Nadal stands out on his own at the forefront of the market, at a current [1.44] on the Exchange. Dominic Thiem, priced at [9.20], Novak Djokovic, at [12.0], Grigor Dimitrov [18.0], and Kei Nishikori and David Goffin, both at [26.0], are his main rivals.
Of these, Thiem has strong data on his favourite surface, but ran into the Nadal juggernaut last week in Monaco, winning just two games across two sets, and Nishikori fared a little better, netting five in the final. Djokovic showed some improvement from earlier months on tour this year, but was defeated by Thiem prior to that Nadal match, and Dimitrov - as mentioned several times in the daily previews last week - has had relatively little success on slow clay compared to other surfaces.
Conditions expected to be slow in Spain
Again, slow clay is what he's likely to find in Barcelona. In the last three years here, just 73.7% of service games have been held - down from the 77.1% ATP clay mean - and just 0.29 aces per game were served, down from the 0.37 clay average.
Thiem likely to come through bottom half of the draw
Interestingly, Dimitrov has got lucky with his draw, swerving Nadal, Nishikori and Djokovic, who all were grouped together in a brutal first quarter as seeds with first-round byes. Dimitrov has Pablo Carreno-Busta, Adrian Mannarino and Andrey Rublev as his seeded rivals in the bottom quarter.
However, the Bulgarian is going to struggle to potentially get past Thiem in the semi-finals, with the young Austrian having markedly better clay data. Thiem is a fairly skinny 6/1 with the Sportsbook, compared to the previously mentioned Exchange price - I suppose wariness about an avalanche of each-way bets on him is a factor - so it's really tough to find an outright angle here.
Pouille market favourite to defend title in Budapest
Moving on to the lower-profile 250 level event in Budapest, which is likely to be played in relatively similar slow conditions. Last year, Lucas Pouille took the inaugural title, defeating Aljaz Bedene in straight sets in the final.
The Frenchman has been installed as a [3.8] favourite on the Exchange to repeat this triumph, with Richard Gasquet at a current [4.0], similar to Sportsbook prices. Statistically, Gasquet has considerably better clay data over the last couple of years, and I prefer his chances to his younger compatriots.
Seeds weak in the bottom half of the draw
With other seeds with byes Denis Shapovalov (clay level) and Damir Dzumhur (current form) having big question marks over their potential for success, picking an unseeded player at big odds makes some sense too.
Bedene, at 16/1, looks to have potential, but frustratingly he's been drawn in Gasquet's second quarter. The bottom half of the draw, containing both Shapovalov and Dzumhur, looks incredibly weak, and Jan-Lennard Struff looks as good a prospect as any to make it through. However, the markets have seen this potential as well, and he's a short-looking 6/1 for the title.
Worth taking an each-way chance on Dzumhur to recapture form
If Paolo Lorenzi can somehow recapture some sort of level - he's been awful this year - then he could be a pick at 25/1, but maybe the best bet is to take a chance on Dzumhur each-way at 16/1 with the Betfair Sportsbook, with the benefit of a seeded bye in a gift draw. He's not impressed of late, but had an excellent record on clay in Challengers prior to stepping up to the main tour.
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