Sean Calvert’s ATP Belgrade/Barcelona Outright Preview

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The clay swing of the 2021 ATP Tour continues in week 16 with ATP 500 and ATP 250 events in Spain and Serbia – the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell and the Serbia Open in Belgrade.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are both short-priced favourites to win on home soil this week and Sean Calvert is back to take a look at the chances of an upset in each tournament.


I was right to take on Novak Djokovic in the top half of the draw in Monte-Carlo last week, but the Serb’s shock loss to Dan Evans didn’t help us much when our 250-1 man Christian Garin lost to eventual champ Stefanos Tsitsipas.

For me, Tsitsipas winning the event was a bit of a surprise given how poor he was in his opening match on clay last season and also because he’s been talking about struggling mentally with the rigours of the tour in its current guise.

Andrey Rublev beating Rafa Nadal was also a shock, but it was a poor Nadal that we saw in that match and he’ll be looking for a huge improvement this week in Barcelona.

We were going along well with our 14-1 shot of Filip Krajinovic in Q4 when Daniil Medvedev withdrew and Diego Schwartzman lost his opener, but Krajinovic was poor in his last-16 match against Fabio Fognini.

That was frustrating after Krajinovic had played well in his opening matches and he’d have had a winnable one against Casper Ruud for the money afterwards, but it wasn’t to be.

Conditions and trends

As is always the case with clay events, the playing conditions are very much dependent on the weather and rarely has that been highlighted as much as it was in Barcelona back in 2017.

It rained a lot in the opening stages of that tournament and that meant that the ball was bouncing much lower and spinning less, which gave even the likes of Yuichi Sugita a chance.

Indeed, Sugita made the quarters that year, beating the likes of Robredo, Gasquet and Carreno Busta at big odds in a year that saw that 50% underdog winners, so rain changes conditions a lot on the dirt.

We also saw it last week in Monte-Carlo when our man Christian Garin struggled in the damp conditions against Felix Auger-Aliassime, but improved after a long delay and in warmer conditions.

There is rain forecast from Wednesday to Sunday in Barcelona at the moment, so it could have a bearing on some of the match outcomes.

As far as fans are concerned, there will be “a limited number” of spectators allowed in, so it won’t be played behind closed doors.

In terms of outright winners, Barcelona has been won by one of the top five seeds every year it’s been played since 2005 (when a certain Rafael Nadal won it seeded eighth) and the last unseeded winner was Gaston Gaudio in 2002.

A qualifier has made the quarter finals the last three times it’s been staged, but the last qualifier to go on and make the semis was Kristof Vliegen in 2004.

Replacing Budapest on the calendar this year is the Serbia Open, which is played on clay at the eponymous Novak Tennis Centre and this tournament will (or so they say at the moment at least) be played behind closed doors.

The venue held last week’s Belgrade Challenger event, the final of which was contested by Roberto Carballes Baena and Damir Dzumhur, so two players there lacking in power but able to win on consistency and stamina came to the fore.

There’s a fair bit of rain in the forecast in Belgrade this week, too, so that’s something to bear in mind.

Barcelona Open

The performance level of Rafael Nadal last week in Monte-Carlo when he was convincingly beaten by Andrey Rublev makes this Barcelona Open draw rather more interesting than it perhaps otherwise would have been.

Had Nadal steamrollered all comers in Monaco I probably wouldn’t have had much of a bet at all this week in Barcelona, but that humbling from Rublev, who should have won it in straight sets, must have rocked Nadal’s confidence.

At the age of almost 35 serious questions are now finally being asked of the King of Clay and how much longer he can stay on top on the dirt given his age and physical playing style.

Rublev won’t fear Nadal any more on clay and the likes of Karen Khachanov, Christian Garin, Diego Schwartzman and Fabio Fognini – all of whom are in Nadal’s top of the draw this week in Barcelona – might fancy their chances as well.

With rain forecast on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, we’ll probably have similar conditions to those last week in Monte-Carlo, and that should make this top half of the draw very interesting indeed.

Last week, Nadal was priced up around the 1.80 mark and now he’s even shorter with several layers to win this week and with plenty of decent opposition to overcome, too.

Nadal served appallingly in his match against Rublev and the rest of his game fell apart with it, but if I were a Nadal fan I’d be very worried with what I saw and I certainly wouldn’t be rushing to back him at around 1.66.

Garin is likely to be an early test for Nadal, but I’m not sure that damp conditions favour him too much either and I’d be after a sunny week before thinking about siding with the Chilean at as short as 50-1 in Nadal’s half.

I didn’t mind at 250s last week and he played pretty well then before losing to eventual champion Tsitsipas, but others appeal more this week – notably Schwartzman and Carreno Busta – but there are plenty of others in the mix.

Schwartzman was poor first up in Monte-Carlo last week and he has often been found wanting on slow clay in Europe, but usually those sorts of performances from him come in 250s – not Masters events or at a tournament with the prestige of Barcelona.

So, I’d expect better from Schwartzman this week, and he’ll have to be at it from the start, as Carlos Alcaraz is no easy opening match (assuming Alcaraz beats Tiafoe in round one), but it could be just the sort of match that could ease Schwartzman back into form.

He played very well at home in Buenos Aires on the dirt and he’s shown he can be more than a match for Nadal on slow clay when he beat Rafa in straight sets in Rome last season in September.

At 25-1 I don’t mind giving him a chance to show his real form this week ahead of Carreno Busta, who’s been playing some very nice stuff the last few weeks and has to have a chance in this second quarter of the draw that also features Schwartzman, Evans and Fabio Fognini.

PCB’s 6-1 career series lead over Fognini (4-0 on clay) makes it hard to fancy Fabio that much in Q2, but it’s also hard to see PCB beating Nadal on clay in Spain (or anywhere else for that matter), so one-sided has that career series been (7-0 to Nadal).

David Goffin once again showed his mental frailties last week when losing a match he should have won against Dan Evans (who’s also not without a chance in this top half of the draw) and Goffin may have to face Khachanov for what would be their third career clash in Barcelona (1-1 at the moment).

I suspect it’ll probably be too slow and heavy for Khachanov if we get rain and Goffin looks the more likely contender, but it’s hard to trust the Belgian when things get tight.

So, I’ll take Schwartzman in the top half and move on to the bottom half.

The withdrawal of Casper Ruud has opened up the bottom half of the draw a bit – on paper at least – for Andrey Rublev, who now won’t face a seeded opponent until at least the last-16.

Then he may well face a rematch with Roberto Bautista Agut, who Rublev defeated in Monte-Carlo last week, but it could just as easily be Jannik Sinner, who the Russian would take on in that round.

RBA is tough to really fancy here given his 6-6 win/loss record in Barcelona and his 0-3 (at all levels) record against Sinner and he’s also lost three of his last four against Rublev.

What would be interesting in this section of the draw for me is a Sinner v Rublev quarter final clash in what would be a first career meeting between the pair (they played three games before Sinner retired in their only prior match).

Sinner’s shown us what he can do on this surface as well as hard courts and having had a week to transition back to the clay after going so well in Miami, Sinner looks the one best placed to challenge Rublev and Stefanos Tsitsipas in this bottom half of the draw.

Tsitsipas will be delighted at his clay form in Monte-Carlo, but he and Rublev are both too short for me this week at around the 8-1 mark each and Sinner at 22-1 is preferred, having beaten (an admittedly really poor) Tsitsipas on clay last autumn.

Tsitsipas’ fourth quarter of the draw does look rather kind, compared with Q3, with the likes of Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Alex De Minaur usually more of a threat on hard courts.

It could turn out to be the case that Lorenzo Musetti, Alejandro Davidovich Fokina or maybe Jaume Munar could be the ones that threaten Tsitsipas in Q4, but if I were Tsitsipas I’d be pretty happy with that draw.

Serbia Open

Are we really going to take on Novak Djokovic at his home club?

That’s the question for punters in Belgrade and while it is tempting given the big prices on offer this week, the chances of Djokovic losing here do look a little remote.

Now that Marton Fucsovics has withdrawn, perhaps only Aslan Karatsev has the power to do some damage, but other than that it’s hard to fancy anyone in the top half getting the better of the world number one – assuming that he’s focused on winning this week.

Oftentimes in Monte-Carlo (where Djokovic also calls home) Djokovic seems perhaps too laid back and that’s resulted in a string of early exits there, so it’s not that much of a stretch to suggest a similar thing could happen this week, too.

After all, Djokovic hasn’t won a 250 since Eastbourne in 2017 and he hasn’t actually played a 250 on clay since winning here in Belgrade at the 2011 Serbia Open before it lost its licence after the 2012 edition.

But it’s another question entirely to ask who could potentially benefit from any loss of focus from Djokovic and one that I’m struggling to find an answer to.

The likes of Soonwoo Kwon, Juan Ignacio Londero and Miomir Kecamnovic look pretty unlikely to beat Djokovic and Laslo Djere doesn’t seem that likely to either in a half of the draw that lacks a bit of quality on the whole.

Djere is competent enough at this level on the clay, but unless Djokovic is in a generous mood to one of his fellow Serbs he surely isn’t losing in Q1.

Sebastian Korda might be the one to surprise in Q2, with very little in the way of value about Karatsev at 12-1 or so, as Korda showed us all what he can do on clay at the French Open last autumn.

He could just as easily lose first up to Aljaz Bedene, but Bedene hasn’t looked in his best form for quite a while now.

Alexei Popyrin would want it a fair bit quicker than this to show his best form, so if we are betting outright in Belgrade it’s probably best to take one from the bottom half and hope for a big shock in the top half.

Some of the layers are going 1/3 the odds though because of Djokovic’s presence in the draw and I’m not really seeing much in the bottom half that screams ‘value’ at me.

Pablo Cuevas is making his comeback from a broken toe, while John Millman and Emil Ruusuvuori would prefer a faster surface, as would Ricardas Berankis.

Daniil Petrovic made the Sardinia semi finals on slow clay as a lucky loser last autumn, beating Federico Delbonis (and Roberto Caraballes Baena) and Delbonis is in this quarter, as well as Petrovic.

Petrovic took until April 5 this year to record another win at any level since that surprise appearance in the Sardinia semis last October, so he’s probably not going to shock us this week, and Dusan Lajovic looks the obvious bet to win Q3 ahead, just ahead of Delbonis.

But 14-1 isn’t big enough to tempt me into backing Lajovic (who’s lost four of his last five against Delbonis, although the last one was in 2017) to win this title with Djokovic in the field.

Djokovic beat Lajovic love and one the last time they met (on clay in Monte-Carlo in 2018) and moving on to Q4 it’s tough to see fellow Serbs Filip Krajinovic or Viktor Troicki (especially Troicki) besting their illustrious compatriot.

Krajinovic has played very well against Djokovic in recent times at least, twice last year wasting good opportunities to take the opening set against him in Rome and Vienna before predictably fading in two sets.

So, it might fall to number two seed Matteo Berrettini to have a crack at Djokovic in a potential title match on Sunday, but again it’s a tall order for a rusty Berrettini to beat Djokovic after barely playing for most of this season so far.

The Italian would probably prefer a quicker surface as well, but Marco Cecchinato, who Berrettini will probably face in his opening match, has at least beaten Djokovic on clay in a big match (at the French Open quarter finals of 2018).

Cecchinato hasn’t looked close to that form this season though and in truth probably not since that 2018 campaign has the Italian found his best tennis, so it’s a no bet for me in Belgrade this week.


So, I’ll side with Sinner and Schwartzman to cause an upset in Barcelona against Nadal, but nothing appeals in Belgrade this week.

Best Bets

1 point win Sinner to win Barcelona at 22-1 (Bet Victor)

1 point win Schwartzman to win Barcelona at 25-1 (Bet Victor)