French Open

French Open Tips: Back 11/1 Tsitsipas on favourite clay

Stefanos Tsitsipas at French Open Roland Garros
Stefanos Tsitsipas might well be the best clay-court player in the world

Surface-specific ratings have never quite worked, writes Jack Houghton, but maybe the clay can see them thrive...

    • There are few patterns around when players' ratings rise and fall

    • Stefanos Tsitsipas at 11/1 is an exception, who seems to love the red stuff

    • Casoer Ruud at 14/1 is another who can excel at Roland Garros

    Surface-specific Elo

    I've written a couple of times over the years about my experiments with surface-specific Elo ratings.

    Most of this focused on grass-court tennis - often seen as a peculiar niche of the sport - and whether a grass-only Elo might be a better predictor of matches than a rating that encompasses all surfaces.

    Spoiler alert. It wasn't.

    After hours of work to enable a grass-only rating to be produced, and two rounds of analysis to demonstrate its effectiveness, it turned out to be a worse predictor than the bog-standard all-surface Elo I'd started with.

    It's perhaps a little perverse, then, that this week I have found myself poring over surface-specific ratings again, this time wondering if they can provide insight into another niche tennis environment: the clay court.

    Seasonal ups-and-downs

    The motivation to do this came from a graph. I took 20 of the best players according to my ratings over the last 10 seasons - ignoring 2020 - and charted the rises and falls in their Elo rating month by month.

    My hypothesis was that there would be few examples of steep increases and declines, and - even where there were examples - that these would be one-offs, with few monthly patterns.

    This hypothesis was based on two thoughts. First, that the modern player is far more versatile in terms of surface, as my previous analysis into grass-specific ratings had demonstrated. And second, that Elo ratings, by their very nature, are designed to counter recency bias, considering form over a longer period.

    Largely, the hypothesis proved correct: most players rode shallow waves with limited variation between peaks and troughs within a season, and there were no especially significant patterns year-on-year as to which months saw their waters rise or fall.

    Tsitsipas and Ruud the exceptions

    With two notable exceptions.

    Stefanos Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud, every year, begin to horde Elo points at a faster-than-usual rate in April, clinging on to them until early June, before seemingly finding their benevolence and gifting some back to other players on the Tour.

    To check this, I then did a much simpler bit of analysis, taking the same players and calculating their clay-court Elo rating as a percentage of their overall rating.

    Topping the bill? Stefanos Tsitsipas (101%) and Casper Ruud (98%).

    Applying this to the French Open highlights that both players are stonking value to claim their first major at Roland Garros.

    Ruud (15.014/1) finds himself in the same quarter as Novak Djokovic (5.04/1). The duo have only played twice, with Ruud winning in Monte Carlo earlier this year. It's increasingly difficult to accurately use Elo ratings to assess the form of Djokovic, given the infrequency of his schedule, but I would make Ruud the slight favourite to claim a semi-final berth were the two to meet.

    Tsitsipas (12.011/1) finds himself in the same quarter as Carlos Alcaraz (3.953/1) and Andrey Rublev (32.031/1). Alcaraz is the obvious pick amongst this trio, but on clay Tsitsipas would have little to find to beat the Spaniard, and given Alcaraz has been struggling with a forearm injury in the run-up to Roland Garros, his odds look prohibitively short.

    Rublev has had a strong clay-court season so far, winning in Madrid, but his form on the red stuff tends to be inconsistent.

    Tsitsipas and Rublev are the recommendations then, ahead of Australian Open tip Jannik Sinner (6.86/1), whose recent hip injury would seem to throw his chances into doubt.

    Now read more French Open tips and previews here.

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