The new ATP Tour season gets underway in the early hours of Monday morning and returning to preview the three tournaments on the schedule is our tennis columnist, Dan Weston...
"Marcel Granollers has had better days on tour, but had a superb record and data on hard courts in Challengers last year, and his return-orientated style should suit these relatively slow conditions."
Three hard court events begin the 2019 season
After an off-season of six weeks or so, it is difficult to predict who will be more refreshed - the players or bettors and traders, but what is certainly likely is that all of the above will be enthusiastically looking forward to the new season, and the opportunities that it will bring.
Three hard court 250-level events take the main focus on the men's side in the coming week, as players begin their preparations for the Australian Open, which takes place in a fortnight.
While there are often accusations towards players suggesting that they don't give maximum effort in the week immediately prior to a Grand Slam - and such an approach from players is understandable, given the financial and ranking point incentives that major tournaments bring to the table - the first week of a new season should see maximum effort expended, as players are both fresh and motivated to get some valuable court time, as well as starting their campaigns on a positive note.
From a prize money perspective, the event in Doha is considerably more lucrative, with a prize pool of around $1.3m, compared to around $600k for each of Brisbane and Pune, although the benefits for big names in Doha is a little negated due to the fact that no byes are offered for the top four seeds unlike the other two tournaments.
Conditions anticipated to be fairly slow in Doha
Conditions in Qatar are likely to be medium-slow, compared to the average hard court. Just 77.6% of service games were held in the last three editions of the event, down from the 79.2% ATP hard court mean during this time period, and a mere 0.49 aces per game were served, lower than the mean 0.55 hard court count.
With this in mind, I don't anticipate there being any particular benefit derived for hard courters, and it will simply be a case of treating each player on their relative merits here. Novak Djokovic is the heavy tournament favourite, with the world number one being chalked up at 1/2 with the Sportsbook to triumph.
Goffin arguably the best each-way option
Given Djokovic's price, and the 1/3 odds available on each-way propositions, finding a value player in the opposite bottom half of the draw looks logical and realistic options include David Goffin and Dominic Thiem. The rest of the players (including the majority of qualifiers yet to be placed) in the bottom half of the draw look weak or have arguments against them, and Goffin certainly has the easier quarter compared to Thiem, who must get past one of Fernando Verdasco, Phillip Kohlschreiber or Tomas Berdych (whose fitness is unknown) to win his quarter-final.
Goffin had issues with his elbow in the latter stages of 2018, but has been quoted as saying his issues are behind him, and he will benefit from the extended preparation for the season. Given the ease of the draw, I'd prefer him over Thiem at the same 10/1 price.
Similar conditions expected in Pune
Last year's event in Pune was the inaugural tournament at the venue, with the Indian leg of the ATP Tour switching from Chennai last year, and conditions are again expected to be medium-slow for hard courts.
In truth, the field is pretty weak here, even for a 250 level tournament, with the likes of Malek Jaziri managing to get a seeding berth.
After warming up in an exhibition event this week, Kevin Anderson is the top seed, and is a strong 11/8 favourite with the Sportsbook to start his season with a title. Hyeon Chung (7/2) and defending champion Gilles Simon (9/2) are the other market leaders, with Jaziri (9/1) looking rather short given his mediocre record in general.
Granollers the best long-shot on offer
Could some of the players at longer odds represent value? It's certainly conceivable. Benoit Paire (18/1) lacks the application to go with his undoubted talent, while Ernests Gulbis (22/1) might be looking on the new year as an opportunity to considerably improve his ranking. Hubert Hurkacz (50/1) is on an upward curve, and while the same can't be said for the veteran, Ivo Karlovic (also 50/1), it's still going to take a big effort to pressurise the giant Croat's serve.
Jaziri's bottom half of the draw looks weakest, and his quarter in particular looks very mediocre indeed. Second seed Chung's quarter includes Gulbis and Karlovic, as well as young prospect Felix Auger-Aliassime, and if fit - not necessarily a given - the talented Korean should be a strong favourite against this level of opposition.
Taking on Jaziri in Q3 looks viable as well, and I've found a player I'm happy to do it with. Marcel Granollers has had better days on tour, but had a superb record and data on hard courts in Challengers last year, and his return-orientated style should suit these relatively slow conditions. Have the Sportsbook made a rick in offering him at 80/1? For a small each-way stake, I've seen worse long-shots.
Nadal an uneasy favourite in Brisbane
Finally, in Brisbane, conditions tend to be considerably quicker than the other two ATP venues in week one, and this should suit some of the more serve-orientated players in the field.
Top seed Rafa Nadal is the 5/2 tournament favourite, and given his fitness concerns and distaste for quick surfaces in general, it would take a brave bettor to risk this price on the King of Clay. He also faces a fairly tough half of the draw for a 250 level event, including the rapidly improving Daniil Medvedev, Milos Raonic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and another young prospect in the form of Alex de Minaur.
Andy Murray also features in this bracket, and I have considerable doubts about the fitness of the Scotsman currently. His performance this week will give some decent insight into his expectations for the Australian Open.
The bottom half of the draw also is high calibre for this level of tournament, with Nick Kyrgios, Kyle Edmund, Grigor Dimitrov and Kei Nishikori all capable of reaching the latter stages. With such a stacked field, and little to choose between many of the top 8-10 contenders for the title, there are probably easier tournaments to make some value outright choices.
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