The first major of the 2021 season kicks off on Monday at Melbourne Park and given all that’s happened in the last few weeks this year’s Australian Open could well have a few shocks and surprises in store.
I said last week that the Murray River Open looked a very open tournament and so it was pretty annoying to see my 200-1 each-way chance Jiri Vesely have to retire in the quarter finals of the Murray River Open in his second match of the day after Thursday’s play was cancelled.
Vesely was competitive in that quarter final against Felix Auger-Aliassime, but quit after losing the opening set tie break, with a semi final against Corentin Moutet awaiting him had he won it.
That’s the way things have gone in recent times for my outrights though and hopefully the luck will change soon.
Conditions and trends
I said in last week’s preview that the chatter from the players about conditions in Melbourne pointed to it playing a fair bit quicker this year and even in a pretty overcast week it looked on the lively side.
Dominic Thiem even went as far as saying that the courts are “super fast this year,” after having played one set of an evening match and the numbers from Melbourne’s two ATP 250 events suggest that it’s a decent paced surface (81% holds in the main draw at the Great Ocean Road Open up to and including the quarter finals).
Often times though the big show courts – particularly Rod Laver Arena – tend to play slower than the outside courts, but I’d rather be on the side of those players with a big game to call upon in these conditions.
As far as betting value goes, in a ‘normal’ year you’d struggle to get rich backing fancy outright prices in the men’s singles at the Australian Open, with Stan Wawrinka’s 2014 success at 60-1, the exception to the trend that short-priced favourites usually win here in recent times.
But with the players having only just come out of lockdowns of varying degrees of severity and some having had only a few sets of competitive tennis since last October/November we may see an upset or two this year.
The first quarter of the draw has the feeling of a straight shootout between defending champion and world number one Novak Djokovic and the man who came so close to winning the most recent hard court major, Alexander Zverev.
This pair clashed earlier on this week in the ATP Cup at this venue and Djokovic narrowly came through in three sets, but it’s Zverev that has what looks the more straightforward route to a potential quarter final clash with Djokovic.
Djokovic has tricky opponents in Reilly Opelka, Stan Wawrinka, and Milos Raonic in his mini-section of the draw, alongside the likes of Marton Fucsovics, Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe, who can be effective in these conditions on their day, so the Serb will need to be on it straight away this fortnight.
It’s hard to see any of those causing an upset over the best of five sets though and similarly, I’m not sure I can see Zverev slipping up in his mini-section, with an out of form and fitness Gael Monfils, the hit and miss Alexander Bublik, Adrian Mannarino and Miomir Kecmanovic the apparent strongest of his opposition.
You can rarely be sure of Zverev at majors by any means, with the German a regular struggler in the early stages and too often he’s been pushed to five sets by opponents he should be putting away in three or four.
A quarter final against Zverev looks like it’ll be the first big test for Djokovic (unless Wawrinka can roll back the years) and it’s one he’s not guaranteed to pass, so it’s not the easiest of draws for the Serb.
Zverev is certainly a contender for this title, but 16-1 (generally) looks too short for me given that he’d probably have to beat Djokovic, maybe Thiem and then another elite opponent in the final, so no bet for me in Q1.
This looks interesting, with Dominic Thiem unlikely to enjoy a surface he himself described as “super fast” and much will depend on how quick it is on the show courts.
If it’s similarly fast on the show courts I’m not seeing any value in Thiem outright at a best price of 7-1 because as improved as he is on hard courts these days that prioce looks skinny for him to take down (probably) Djokovic and then maybe a Nadal, Medvedev or Tsitsipas in the final.
The Austrian has had little in the way of match practice with an ATP Cup loss to the in-form Matteo Berrettini and one set against a lacklustre Benoit Paire afterwards his only competitive action this year.
There’s also the dangerous presence of the likes of Nick Kyrgios, Ugo Humbert, Grigor Dimitrov, Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori and Pablo Carreno Busta in his mini-section and Jannik Sinner, Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Diego Schwartzman in the quarter as a whole, so Thiem’s not a cert to progress from Q2 for me.
Any of those I’ve listed above could take advantage on their best form, but it’s hard to see Kyrgios, Cilic, Nishikori or Dimitrov reversing their apparent decline this fortnight.
Sinner and Shapovalov have been drawn against each other in round one and the winner of that match has a good chance of making the quarter finals, although Sinner’s deep run this week in the Melbourne ATP 250 event will surely lead to his stamina being tested during the coming fortnight.
It’s probably too quick for Schwartzman here, but his draw looks pretty decent until he’ll most likely have to beat one of Shapovalov, Sinner or Auger-Aliassime.
Those deep runs this week from Sinner and FAA put me off both of them and I’ll also pass on Q2 with my main interest coming in the bottom half of this year’s men’s singles draw.
Q3 could have an all-Russian ending, as Andrey Rublev and Daniil Medvedev look to be the main contenders in this quarter of the draw, with Rublev’s route to the last eight looking quite appealing.
Sam Querrey could cause Rublev a problem or two, but not on the form Querrey’s shown lately, and a deep run from Rublev is expected, however I’m still not convinced that Rublev has the self-belief at this level to go on and win the tournament.
He showed once more at the O2 at the end of last season that he’s not comfortable against the elite and while he’s improved a lot in the last year or so I don’t see it being good enough yet to win a major in this company.
Roberto Bautista Agut may prove a tough last-16 opponent for Rublev and 20-1 doesn’t look great value for my money.
That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rublev made the semis at the expense of Medvedev, whose odds for me are too short at a best priced 9-2.
There’s a lot to like about Medvedev’s chances this week based on how well he ended last season and has started this campaign and the quick conditions should suit him, but 9-2 about him beating Rublev, probably Nadal or Tsitsipas and then most likely Djokovic looks skinny.
He could also be challenged in round one if Vasek Pospisil is fit for duty, with the injury prone Canadian having proved a challenge for Medvedev each time they’ve clashed, winning once and being competitive in the other two.
If he does get past Pospisil though Medvedev’s journey to the quarter final looks well within his ability level, with David Goffin’s current form unlikely to provide a challenge for Medvedev and I’m not seeing any other players in this mini-section likely to beat Medvedev.
This is the really interesting quarter for me and I’m going to side with Stefanos Tsitsipas to come through it and challenge for the title.
The Greek star has begun the season in fine style in the ATP Cup, having struggled a bit with injury towards the end of 2020 and his aggressive game should fit nicely with the quicker conditions in Melbourne this year.
I’ve also taken the 150-1 that was on offer a few days ago about Matteo Berrettini, who’s also begun 2021 in great form and he looks like he’s back to the level he showed in 2019, which was very good indeed.
Again, his aggressive game should be perfect for the conditions this fortnight and while the best you’ll get now is 100-1 it’s still worth half a point each-way as cover for Tsitsipas.
The obvious problem to overcome in Q4 is Rafael Nadal, but the fact that Rafa didn’t play at all in ATP Cup due to a back injury will leave the Spaniard very short on match practice in what are likely to be unsuitably fast conditions.
He said of the problem on Thursday: “I’m not fatal, but I’m not well enough. I’m undergoing treatment and I trust that things will get better, but I’m not ready yet.”
It’s quite possible, of course, that he’s just being cautious and his draw doesn’t look to hold too many problems early on, but I’d certainly want bigger than 6-1 about Nadal in these conditions and while also clearly not being fully fit.
I’m happy to take the 16-1 generally available on Tsitsipas to overcome Nadal and go on to win a semi final against probably Rublev or Medvedev. He’s shown he’s capable of beating both of those players recently (particularly Rublev) and can do so again.
He’s got a great record against Zverev (5-1 head-to-head) and he’s shown several times that his game is capable of punching holes in even the defences of Djokovic, taking him to five sets on clay in their last clash and beating him in quick conditions in Shanghai and also in Toronto.
Q4 is a dangerous one, with the likes of Karen Khachanov, Alex De Minaur, and Kevin Anderson all capable of good runs on their best form, but I’ll chance Tsitsipas at the prices.
Noavk Djokovic (obviously) and Daniil Medvedev will be popular choices this fortnight, but I like what I’ve seen from Tsitsipas and Berrettini this past week or so and they look the value picks in this year’s men’s singles.
2 points win Tsitsipas to win at 16-1 (generally)
0.5 points each-way Berrettini at 100-1 (William Hill, Unibet)