Djokovic among heavy favourites on day three
Wawrinka versus Dimitrov one of the Friday highlights
Garin capable of getting past Paul
Ramos picks up useful win for us on day two
Albert Ramos got our Rome campaign (and his season) back on track with a 2-1 success over Federico Passaro, while my lean towards Marco Cecchinato over Mackenzie McDonald also proved well-founded. Further well-founded was my assertion of far fewer tiebreaks here than Madrid - of the 33 sets completed in the men's tournament today at the time of writing, there have been just four tiebreaks.
Market keen on heavy favourites
As mentioned previously, the slower conditions than Madrid should benefit traditional clay-courters, but also in theory, the better players - simply because matches aren't as variance-heavy with too much importance on several key points as was the case in Madrid. A lucky loser, or qualifier, making the final again would be highly unlikely - I expect this to be fought out among the better players on tour.
Friday's 16 matches on the schedule come from the top half of the draw, which means that Novak Djokovic, Cameron Norrie, Holger Rune, Casper Ruud and Jannik Sinner are among the seeds starting their tournament after first-round byes. On a day which looks pretty one-sided in general, all of the quintet are heavy favourites to start their tournament with a victory - although Djokovic (returning from an elbow problem) versus either Stan Wawrinka or Grigor Dimitrov could be a fascinating third round clash.
Wawrinka and Dimitrov competiting for right to face Djokovic
Wawrinka impressed in round one against Ilya Ivashka, stemming a run of four defeats in his last six, and meets Dimitrov who also has been in pretty uninspiring form, including a retirement loss and a walkover given across the last couple of months. The market is pretty split between the duo, with Dimitrov a marginal 1.9010/11 favourite, and it will be interesting to see the level of the duo here ahead of that anticipated third round match for the winner against Djokovic.
Shelton's return game an issue on clay
Moving on, I viewed Alexander Bublik as fade material on clay this year but the Kazakh has won a few matches, including a pretty solid opener here against Pedro Martinez. He also really pushed Holger Rune in quicker conditions in Madrid several weeks ago, eventually losing in a final set tiebreak, and took a set off Alexander Zverev in Monte Carlo.
Could another win be on the menu here? Bublik faces Ben Shelton, an American with big potential but whose serve-oriented style looks far better suited to other court types. A medium-paced clay court is unlikely to assist Shelton at all here. Bublik has far better clay data this year in the handful of matches they've played, with Shelton barely winning more than 30% of points on return. Bublik at 2.0421/20 could be a play.
Garin decent value at bigger price than previous meeting
Finally, Christian Garin defeated Tommy Paul last year at the French Open as a pre-match favourite priced around the 1.654/6 mark, and he's a little bigger-priced for the re-match on Friday, currently trading as the 1.794/5 favourite.
Garin has done reasonably this year despite not really pulling up any trees, but most of his recent losses have been competitive and as an underdog against higher-ranked opposition. After three consecutive losses, his opponent Paul took part in the Aix-en-Provence Challenger last week, making the final as the top seed before losing in three sets to Andy Murray.
Clay data over the last year gives Garin a huge advantage, and Paul's career clay record is far from impressive either. On this surface, and in these non-quick conditions, I think Garin is the player to keep onside.