ATP Delray Beach: Fair to say that a year ago, no-one would’ve expected this 250 event in Florida would have opened the ATP 2021 season (along with Antalya in Turkey) but extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures and just to have this tournament on is a positive in itself.
Christian Garín heads a pretty average field which has already been hit by high-profile withdrawals including Raonic, Nishikori, Evans and wildcard Andy Murray. It results in the fact that WR274, Bjorn Fratangelo, is a direct-entrant, with many players swerving this opportunity in order to minimise travel-risk before Melbourne. John Isner, Adrian Mannarino, Hubert Hurkacz, Tommy Paul, Sam Querrey, Pablo Andujar and Frances Tiafoe all round off the top-8 seedings in what is a pretty low-grade US 250-event which opens up plenty of opportunities for lesser-ranked players to prosper.
It’s hard to carry much faith in the Chilean top-seed Garín who has made most of his ranking off his impressive clay-results. A win over Wawrinka in Vienna at the tail-end of last year might tempt some into feeling he can do well here but not for me. Isner will always be one to watch in a field such as this where top returners are scarce, but it’s hard to have a lot of faith in someone who has one top-40 win in 13 months and who relies so much on confidence in tiebreaks. These two have byes to R16 but neither look to be the pick here. Hurkacz is a valid favourite, consolidating a decent year on tour in 2020 particularly starting strong with his ATP Cup showing and a QF in Auckland to start the year. But the Pole has been unable to find his best form since the first lockdown, reaching just one QF (Cologne 1), and is making his debut here. He’s probably the one to beat, but not backable at this price.
Instead it looks ripe for an underdog, someone who has played in these Floridian conditions a lot perhaps where the wind can get pretty strong in Delray Beach. A quarter-final showing last year along with several other promising results suggests Soonwoo Kwon could be ready to breakthrough. That result in Florida last year wasn’t isolated - wins over Lajovic, Mannarino and Raonic before lockdown shows he can compete at a level such as this, helping him to QFs in Acapulco, New York and Pune (w. R1 bye). His form in the summer was average at best with 2 wins and 4 losses but 2 of those defeats were on clay where he has very little pedigree anyway, along with a set off the very in-form Shapovalov in New York. Turning those QFs into SFs could come very soon and there may be few better opportunities than here, in a weak 250 hardcourt tournament. His draw isn’t terrible but has a test straight away with Seb Korda who lives locally, and a few more other Americans lurk in that bottom-half but their home-advantage can be somewhat negated with the lack of fans. It would be a big surprise to see the seeds waltz through this tournament with so many question-marks so it has to be worth a punt on an outsider who ticks a few boxes.
Soonwoo Kwon to win @ 22/1 e/w
WTA Abu Dhabi: What the two ATP tournaments lack in regards of quality, they make up for it in this new event in the UAE with fourteen of the world’s top-30 on the entry-list. It’s also worth noting a change in the ranking/points system for 2021 on the women’s tour, with it now reflecting the ATP’s use of 250/500/1000 (with some slight variants).
Given Abu Dhabi’s new 500-status, it’s not a surprise they can attract four top-tenners, with Sofia Kenin heading the field almost a year after her grand-slam breakthrough in Melbourne. She’s joined by Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova, Aryna Sabalenka, Garbine Muguruza, Elena Rybakina, Elise Mertens and Marketa Vondrousova who make up the top-8 seeds. Most of these have had good results in the middle-east and also crucially around the start of the season where the form-guide especially can be hard to track.
Pliskova, Svitolina and Sabalenka lead the market and it’s easy to see why; Sabalenka finished 2020 with a 9 match winning-streak and two titles, and indeed has shown strong early-season form the last couple of years with a title in Shenzhen week-one and a semi-final in Adelaide last year. One thing against her remains her slam-record and she should see Melbourne as a good opportunity to break her duck given the uncertainty at the top of the women’s game lately, so perhaps she’ll be keen to find form here. Pliskova won Brisbane the last two years to kick off the season and is pretty consistent wherever she goes, but hasn’t won an event since that title in Brisbane a year ago (10-8 since) and maybe is a little too short given this. Svitolina seems all too likely to be overpowered at some point by someone in this draw and there can’t be many people backing her at 13/2 feeling comfortable with that price.
Kenin was named the WTA player of the year in 2020, understandably so with two finals in grand-slams and a title in Lyon. But yet, it’s her inconsistency which makes her only third favourite here; a 6-0 6-0 loss in Rome, losing 3 matches in a row soon after winning in Melbourne and a disappointing R16 exit in New York. She lost in Brisbane in the second-round last year but has also a title in Hobart on her resumé, which again only goes to highlight how tricky she is to pick. 8/1 feels tempting though, given she’ll be motivated to go to Melbourne in good form to defend her points there.
My first pick though is someone also towards the top of the market but who I feel has been slightly underestimated; Jennifer Brady was one of 2020’s biggest improvers, starting the year outside the top-50 and rarely troubling the deeper-ends of tournaments, but finished it with a grand-slam semi-final and a first WTA title and an extremely consistent 21-9 record in what was a shortened season. Confidence is something she’s lacked for a while but last year should be the breakthrough she needed to be a contender for more of these sorts of events and maybe more. She won five matches through qualies in Brisbane last year in week-one, as well as a further 7 wins across the middle-east in Dubai and Doha in the Spring. Being from the US and playing college tennis in California obviously backs up that she can compete in warmer conditions where the ball should move faster and she can dominate with her serve and forehand. She’s the 11th seed here and has landed a fairly kind draw, with Vondrousova, Pliskova, Mertens and Svitolina the high-seeds in her half, avoiding Sabalenka and Kenin amongst others. But regardless of her draw, no-one will want to face her given how she ended her 2020 season and has every chance to snap up a second career-title here.
Given this field is as deep as it is (64 entries), it does feel like a good opportunity to also pick another name lower down the market who has a fair record at this time of the year and can come in under the radar. At this price, the second choice goes to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who has flattered to deceive in her career to this point but as such can be underestimated by bookmakers and surprise a few. She has 7 Premier finals in her career which is the equivalent of this 500-level now, and now a couple of AO QFs back to back in 19/20 which highlight how her good season-starting form can give her hope here. Her record in this part of the world is fairly terrible but perhaps this new location could be to her liking. She’s picked up a testing part of the draw; Jabeur, Sabalenka and Rybakina all in her quarter but she’s proven she can take out big names when her form is right (wins over Bencic, Kerber, Pliskova last year) and as mentioned, this could be a chance for a lower-ranked player to seize an advantage when the top-ranked players have their eye elsewhere.
Jennifer Brady to win @ 20/1 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova to win @ 66/1 e/w
ATPDelray Beach: Fair to say that a year ago, no-one would’ve expected this 250 event in Florida would have opened the ATP 2021 season (along with Antalya in Turkey) but extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures and just to have t
Indeed no match-wins let alone tournament-wins! Brady a bagel-up and lost...Hurkacz and Sabalenka were the two tournament winners as favourite (Sabalenka was joint in some places), not always the case the top players start well, De Minaur was also around the top of the market in Antalya. Onto the "real" start of the season in Australia this coming week...
@DanielKoellerer first of all great name, what a throwback... + some great picks. Be good to have your input here to continue onwards! Norris did cross my mind at a good price and should've taken his chance in Delray against an inexperienced opponent.
ATP Cup, Great Ocean Road Open, Murray River Open, Gippsland Trophy, Yarra Valley Classic and Grampians Trophy to come...not sure i'll preview all but the ATP Cup does look interesting to start
Kwon, Brady, Pavlyuchenkova = LOSSIndeed no match-wins let alone tournament-wins! Brady a bagel-up and lost...Hurkacz and Sabalenka were the two tournament winners as favourite (Sabalenka was joint in some places), not always the case the top players
ATP ATP Cup: A new tournament last year, this now takes place as the 'senior' event in what is the season's second week which begins in February, highlighting the bizarre nature of circumstances which tennis, sport and life in general finds itself in currently. Australia has made extreme decisions in order to get this event, among others, on at the expense of the interesting nature of the event last year whereby three cities (Perth, Sydney, Brisbane) held the event culminating in the QF-SF-F in Sydney. This time, every match will be in Melbourne and it's managed to attract an even stronger field to last year, but with arguably more unknowns.
Nine of the world's top-10 are involved (only Federer is missing), but the questions about this tournament still remain. Quarantine forced most players to go without outdoor-practice for 14 days, while others had opportunities open to them in Adelaide which they took, including a high-quality exhibition between Nadal and Thiem on Friday. There's no reason to expect players haven't had good training-blocks over the winter so physically should be ready, but the slightly uneven buildup does result in an intriguing event.
Serbia defend the title they won in 2020, largely thanks to Djokovic winning his six singles matches. Indeed, the top-players in 2020's event all turned up and performed well; Djokovic, Nadal, Medvedev were the highest-ranked players and the final was essentially decided by Djokovic vs Nadal in the second-singles match. Interestingly, Thiem and Zverev both underperformed in the ATP Cup but would meet a few weeks later in the Australian Open semi-final, so that alone is a good indicator not to read too much into the results here with regards to the Grand-Slam around the corner, especially with it being held in the same city with no additional travel.
Russia come in as favourites, understandably so to a point being the only country with two top-tenners involved (Medvedev, Rublev). Spain also bring a strong team (Nadal, Bautista Agut) who were almost flawless up to the final together in 2020 (Nadal lost once before that Djokovic defeat). Djokovic is once again paired with Lajovic as the second singles player (Troicki this time captains the team instead of appearing in the doubles). Austria will rely heavily on Thiem again, who struggled in this event last year, as did Germany who could not rely on their top-player Zverev as he underwent extreme serve problems. Australia have no Kyrgios this time but are still able to field a competitive team. Canada replace Auger-Aliassime for Raonic, beyond that it's hard to see anyone outside these winning.
The market clearly favours three teams above the rest here, and I don't see any reason to optimistically back against one of them taking the title. My pick goes to the bigger of the three prices, defending champions Serbia, to retain their title. Of course they'll be relying heavily on Novak Djokovic, but that's not proven to be a bad thing for them in recent years. He's 15-0 in Davis Cup singles since 2011 and went 6-0 in this tournament against some decent opposition last year. Quite simply, he's never found team-events to be a problem getting motivated for and this tournament should be no different again considering how much they celebrated last year's win. Add into the mix, he's taken some criticism for quarantine-related issues and that is the sort of thing which could just add to his motivation. He can't win it alone though, and while there may be times he's needed in the doubles, Lajovic is an able deputy and performed well last year in this tournament with 4 wins. His form to end 2020 was not good (ended 0-5), but again is super-motivated in the team-environment and has chances vs both Raonic and Struff in the group-stage to get started.
The smaller number of teams in this event mean singles players will need to play 5 matches rather than 6, which could aid the likes of Serbia if they can get Djokovic in one or two doubles matches if they need to win them. Krajinovic/Cacic don't have any pedigree together but should be fine in qualifying for the quarter-finals. Thinking ahead to the latter-stages, Djokovic playing for his country against the likes of Nadal and Medvedev should the situation arise will be very difficult to beat. At this price compared to Russia and Spain, I see more upside in what could be a slightly unpredictable tournament, plus how often do you get the chance to back this sort of price on Novak to win a hardcourt-event?
Serbia to win @ 4/1
ATPATP Cup: A new tournament last year, this now takes place as the 'senior' event in what is the season's second week which begins in February, highlighting the bizarre nature of circumstances which tennis, sport and life in general finds itself in
Good start for Serbia and think it’s a nice pick. Your write up is convincing and there’s always huge pressure on the second player to beat lajovic.
Bit of a stab trying to pick a winner this week so I’ll give some input before the Aussie.
Nice write up JB. Good start for Serbia and think it’s a nice pick. Your write up is convincing and there’s always huge pressure on the second player to beat lajovic. Bit of a stab trying to pick a winner this week so I’ll give some input befor
Perhaps for the first time since the pandemic, this tournament will have the feeling of a big event again with the addition of up to 30,000 fans per day which will be a welcome relief for players and fans alike after months of relative flatness on tour. Comparing to the US Open, where no fans were allowed and the big stadiums with the big echos felt very different, this will feel much more like a Grand Slam tournament again and that's to be welcomed.
One important factor to note here is the speed of the courts; the weather will as always be an important factor but the surface looks noticeably different from the warm-up events. Novak Djokovic was one to mention it: “Courts are quicker each year here, it is a lot different comparing to 5-6 years ago. A lot of players noted it this year.” Naturally this should be something of an advantage to bigger servers and players who prefer to spend most of their time chasing behind the baseline in the heat might struggle.
Mens: The big-three stranglehold on the sport seems to reduce slowly year by year but once again Djokovic is favourite with the bookmakers. He’s won 3 tournaments since triumphing in Melbourne, and despite the farcical scenes in New York last year, isn’t showing any signs of slowing down just yet. As the most successful player in the tournament’s history with 8 titles, he justifies his price which is pretty similar to most of the last few years leading into this tournament at around 5/4.
With 14 match-wins and three tournaments won on the spin, Daniil Medvedev is rated as the main-challenger to Djokovic. There are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about his chances; he’s proven he can beat anyone on his day and most would agree he’s a Grand-Slam champion in-waiting one day, but his record in BO5 still leaves questions to be answered, perhaps highlighting his tendency to lose focus at key times but he’s yet to win a match in a fifth-set on tour and that needs to change at some point. Rafael Nadal carries injury worries, mentioning a back problem he’s had since arriving in Adelaide a few weeks ago, didn’t play at all in the ATP Cup and that has to be a concern. Winning the US Open has taken a lot of pressure off Dominic Thiem now which may be to his benefit, and showed his liking to conditions in Melbourne last year with an impressive run falling one set short of breaking his duck there. This quartet lead the market and perhaps the benefit goes to Medvedev who has landed in Nadal’s half and is the most in-form of this four, but i’m looking slightly further afield.
Without relying on Djokovic striking another tennis-ball at a line-judge, it’s difficult to find much else in his quarter to be optimistic about - Raonic and Zverev each had some match-time against the Serb in the ATP Cup this week, but it’s not easy to make a strong case for either beating him here of all places. Wawrinka is a slight wildcard pick, of course a past champion but in the twilight of his career won’t find it easy to win these big BO5 tournaments now but his one-off matches, he can cause upsets still and might have something of a say in that quarter. Less clearcut is Thiem’s quarter; Schwartzman, Shapovalov, Sinner and Kyrgios all lurk as the main dangers. Shapovalov and Schwartzman are each priced at around 100/1, which may appeal to some given each went deep in slams in the Autumn.
My temptation here is to avoid the Djokovic/Thiem problem at the top of the market and instead look to someone who has every chance of taking advantage in an open bottom-half. Medvedev and Rublev landing in the same quarter as two of the form players at the end of 2020/start of 2021 is one to avoid, so my eye is drawn to the bottom-quarter; the Australian Open has seen several top-level breakthroughs in the last decade or so and therefore my pick goes to Matteo Berrettini who has shown glimpses this week of the sort of form that could take him deep here. The Italian was one of the few to perhaps benefit from the timing of the pandemic, able to recover from injuries and now looks fully fit. Wins over Monfils, Thiem and Bautista Agut without dropping a set should give some room for optimism, as will the speed of the courts. Berrettini won’t be one who’ll come here to defend and waste much energy; a strong serve and forehand, as well as a regularly-used drop-shot makes him a tricky customer but especially here if the ball is lively he'll be able to dictate as much as possible from the baseline. His best results have been on the slightly quicker courts of Shanghai (SF 2019) and New York (SF 2019), the latter being somewhat unexpected at the time. He’s less under the radar here as the ninth-seed but he’s still been underrated by the bookmakers in my opinion.
I’m also keen to have on-side a little interest in the top-half at a good price, and one who ticks a few boxes is Ugo Humbert. Now 22 and close to his career-high ranking, the Frenchman has shown recently the ability to compete at the highest-level with a maiden-title in Auckland backed up with a second in Antwerp, a recent win over Medvedev and an impressive run to the quarter-finals in Paris indoors. Humbert is undoubtedly made for quicker conditions too, he likes to attack the net and being a leftie makes him trickier for some opponents not used to his style of play whereby he likes to take time away from his opponent. He’s landed in the Thiem/Kyrgios section, potentially facing the Australian in R2, who has been known to struggle in the early-rounds in Melbourne before, but at this price the Frenchman is worth a poke to make a breakthrough-run deep into the tournament.
Verdict Matteo Berrettini @ 80/1 ew Ugo Humbert @ 500/1 ew
Womens: While the biggest mens events continue to look predictable in their predictably, the ladies grand-slams remain reassuringly difficult to call. 7 male players can be backed under 45/1, while 17 on the womens side are available in this bracket. Naomi Osaka was an impressive and perhaps unsurprising winner in New York last year but the French Open was anything but easy to predict, with Iga Swiatek romping to the title without dropping a set as the 54th best player in the world.
There are a whole range of narratives open here in this draw, the biggest most would argue is Serena Williams’ quest for her 24th victory at this level and she comes in with every chance. Ash Barty is top-seed and with fans allowed in at her home-event must be considered, as is top-seed Naomi Osaka who has won at this slam-level in each of the last 3 years. Then you have Aryna Sabalenka who came in with 15 wins out of 15 to last week before a surprise early loss, last year’s champion Sofia Kenin who has backed up that win sufficiently and Garbine Muguruza who dropped just ten games in 4 matches to reach the final this week before losing to Barty. This is all before you mention names like Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka and Bianca Andreescu, who’s return is greatly anticipated, which just shows how difficult this tournament is to predict.
Onto the draw, it would seem to have favoured those in the top-half; Osaka, Sabalenka, S Williams, Andreescu and Muguruza all join second-seed Halep in the bottom-half, as well as the likes of Kvitova whose record here lately is good and French Open champion Swiatek. Top-seed Barty has been fortunate with her draw, with only Petra Martic in the top-20 a potential opponent in her first four matches and Karolina Pliskova potentially in the last-eight. Also beneficiaries of the draw appear to be Kenin and Azarenka in an open second-quarter; Elina Svitolina is seeded fifth but it’s very hard to make a case for her in these conditions where she can be hit off the court.
On this basis, considering the form-guide, playing-conditions and the fans on her side, the main pick is Ashleigh Barty to win her second grand-slam title. Barty was one of the few to completely dodge the tour’s return in the summer/autumn but her return this week in the buildup event hasn't given any reason to suggest she’s lost her touch. She has won 3 of her last 5 singles events dating back to the WTA Finals in 2019, including two titles in her home-country and had big chances to at least reach the final in the Australian Open last year, missing set-points in each set in her loss to Kenin. She’ll have learnt from that, and will also be better for the quicker conditions which suit her gamestyle. Barty’s price isn’t as appealing as others but she looks the most likely to me, especially with some minor concerns over some of the contenders such as Osaka and Williams who withdrew in the week preceding this tournament. Add in Barty’s strong recent head-to-head record with her rivals, she looks to be the one to beat despite her coming in second-favourite with the bookmakers.
As with the men’s draw, i’m keen to side with someone in the other half for interest at a slightly bigger price, and another player who will enjoy these conditions ought to be Ons Jabeur, who continues to improve at this level despite yet having a title to her name. She resides at her career-high ranking of 30 in the world and has been able to show good form at the Grand Slams lately with a QF and R4 in 2021. Her draw is difficult although there’s no real safe-spot for anyone so that’s to be expected, but perhaps in her favour is landing in Osaka’s section who, along with her niggling injury she’s talked about, has yet to face Jabeur on tour and the Tunisian’s tricky style of play could be awkward to get the better of in these conditions. Jabeur has the firepower on serve as well as the ability to shorten points and take opponents out of their comfort-zones, and it would also be quite typical of the WTA to throw up a story like Jabeur winning her first title and it being at a big tournament such as this.
Verdict Ashleigh Barty @ 11/2 Ons Jabeur @ 150/1 ew
Australian OpenPerhaps for the first time since the pandemic, this tournament will have the feeling of a big event again with the addition of up to 30,000 fans per day which will be a welcome relief for players and fans alike after months of relative
A rather flat end as Berrettini w/d due to an abdominal injury and Barty succumbed to a flat loss in the QFs. Osaka and Williams' injuries proved to be more precautionary than anything as I rather suspected, and they're set for a blockbuster meeting this evening in the first semi-final.
Obviously anything can happen in a fortnight but the lockdown/fan-withdrawal midway through was unexpected, as was Djokovic's injury-scare, and that's before you mention Karatsev. That's all led to a pretty exciting last four in both draws and i'll take one last bit of interest heading into the semis:
Medvedev & Osaka to BOTH win the Australian Open @ 7.2
Regardless of my doubts on Djokovic's fitness which remain, Medvedev has done everything he's needed to convince me he can lift his first grand-slam title this weekend. His form is of course exemplary, he hasn't lost since before Paris but a lot of those wins lately have been pretty routine as well and his comprehensive win over fellow in-form Rublev was a sign that he's in the right spot to win here. He holds a 5-1 HTH with Tsitsipas and has won 3 of the last 4 meetings with Djokovic, impressive for anyone but his confidence is sky-high at this time. Another thing in his favour, though it was a rather ugly win ultimately, he has the first five-set win under his belt (vs Krajinovic) this fortnight which should at least help him if he goes deep. Night conditions won't harm him, nor will the fans' imminent return, he's a showman and I think feeds off the energy they'll provide. Nerves will be a factor too, he was disappointing in his last semi-final in New York in defeat to Thiem but he's always found the Austrian a tough nut to crack and that bad experience could be turned to a positive here. A super-fit and firing Djokovic is the man to beat, but slow starts vs Raonic and Zverev since (either of which could have put him away) weren't punished, i don't expect Karatsev to be the one to (bonus if he is), but let's see how he's feeling physically after another 3 or more sets tomorrow.
Adding in Osaka who has looked very impressive bar the Muguruza match, where she massively got out of jail saving match-points, but that can often act as a galvaniser as she proved in easing past Hsieh in the quarters, to set up a pretty mouthwatering match vs Williams. The American, also protecting an injury before the tournament, hasn't shown many ill-effects and like Osaka, came through her big test in the fourth-round vs Sabalenka and backed it up looking very impressive vs Halep. But the issue for her is #24, she's been close multiple times in recent years and keeps falling short, not just by a little but often her level drops alarmingly around the semis and final, and she can't afford that here against a high-quality opponent and tournament-closer like Osaka. The Japanese edges the HTH 2-1, it's hard to read a lot into that, but it shows she's not afraid of Williams like so many younger players have been in the past; the key is that Osaka has proven now she's capable of playing her best when it matters deep into a slam and, with a first-time finalist in the opposite-half, this represents a fine chance to add to her growing collection.
A rather flat end as Berrettini w/d due to an abdominal injury and Barty succumbed to a flat loss in the QFs. Osaka and Williams' injuries proved to be more precautionary than anything as I rather suspected, and they're set for a blockbuster meeting