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