Take a punt in Paris
Outsiders tend to thrive at the Paris Masters, so Andy Schooler has 40/1 and 100/1 picks for this week's ATP tournament.
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History suggests backing outsiders is the thing to do when it comes to the Paris Masters, this week's event on the ATP World Tour.
Many of the leading players have a bigger goal in mind - the forthcoming ATP World Tour Finals in London - and history shows they've not been keen to push themselves too hard at the famous 'underground' Bercy venue.
Its position in the calendar has long been a problem for tournament organisers and the decision to eliminate the week's break between Paris and the Tour Finals in London, implemented last year, has only exacerbated things.
Just look what happened 12 months ago. Roger Federer pulled out before the start while Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray both exited before the quarter-finals, along with several other big names. In the end, the final was between David Ferrer - a man who had never before won a Masters title - and a complete outsider in the then-world number 69 Jerzy Janowicz.
The good news is that the week's break will return in 2014 but this year's tournament could well unfold in a similar way to last season's. Certainly it will be a week to back underdogs in match bets and consider results that would be unlikely virtually any other week of the year.
The players yet to qualify for the World Tour Finals - the likes Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet - are among those who will look to take full advantage of any top players failling to be 100 per cent focused. Winning matches this week is of paramount importance to them and helps explain why 'second-tier' players have a good record in this event.
As well as Ferrer, Robin Soderling, Tsonga, Nikolay Davydenko and Tomas Berdych have all won here. The Big Four have managed to do so just twice.
So while I certainly won't be backing any of the market leaders at a short price, I'm looking for someone of that ilk - a player with a reason to perform but one with clear ability.
So conditions will suit whom? Well, court and ball speed deliberately mimick London which means this is a fairly slow indoor tournament, although organisers have suggested speed could be increased next season when the calendar rejig is in place.
Below I've run through the main contenders to highlight the pros and cons surrounding their title chances.
Rafael Nadal - not at his best at this time of year due to fatigue and conditions; also faces potentially tricky opener against in-form Dmitry Tursunov as he seeks first Bercy title. Does, however, have some incentive - a win here would see him become the first player ever to win six of the nine Masters titles in the same season.
Novak Djokovic - having won in Beijing (where he beat Nadal) and Shanghai recently, on form the Serb is the most likely title winner - if he wants it. The worry is will he want a hard, full week's work behind him going into London?
David Ferrer - has just played back-to-back finals in Stockholm and Valencia. Is defending champion here but three weeks of solid tennis would not be good preparation for the Tour Finals.
Juan Martin Del Potro - a form horse. Winner in Tokyo and Basel, runner-up in Shanghai. But, again, surely he'll want to be at his best for London where he'll have a good chance on current form. Will a strong week here help or hinder those chances?
Roger Federer - Basel finalist so will 32-year-old want back-to-back weeks of tennis in his legs before London? Does still need to collect points here though if he is to return to The O2.
Tomas Berdych - of those to have already qualified for London, 2005 champion Berdych is probably most in need of a good run here. Early exits in Shanghai and Basel (both on final-set tie-breaks) mean he's rather short on match practice ahead of the Tour Finals. Has game and incentive to perform well here.
Stanislas Wawrinka - yet to qualify for London but will do so with a good run here. However, last week's miserable loss to Edouard Roger-Vasselin in Basel is a definite worry. A potential QF opponent is Djokovic.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - another former winner here but conditions are slower these days. He is also looking to nail down a London spot but with rival Gasquet and Nadal both possible opponents before the semis, he has a tough task on his hands.
Richard Gasquet - also chasing a place in the World Tour Finals but has a seriously tough potential path through the draw (see above) including a possible opener against the mercurial Ernests Gulbis. Not at his best under pressure, either.
Milos Raonic - will probably need to reach the final if he's to qualify for the Tour Finals. Big serve a huge indoor weapon, although slow surface won't aid his cause. Having said that, Jerzy Janowicz managed to hit through the court en route to last year's final.
Tommy Haas - needs to win to stand a chance of reaching London, which would be a remarkable achievement for the 35-year-old. Won in Vienna two weeks ago, so isn't without hope. Last-16 meeting scheduled with Federer.
Nicolas Almagro - another who needs the title to qualify for the Tour Finals but even that might not be enough. Has a decent draw though and form is good. Beat Berdych en route to last eight in Shanghai, lost to Del Potro on two breakers in Tokyo SFs and also made the semis in Valencia last week. Slowish surface will suit; possibly worth an outside bet.
Other possibles: Last year's runner-up Jerzy Janowicz could be inspired by a return to Paris but hasn't been in great form. Gael Monfils and Vasek Pospisil both have bundles of talent but meet each other in round one with the winner facing Berdych. Mikhail Youzhny is a good indoor player hwo arrives having just reached the final in Valencia, while both Dmitry Tursunov and Ivan Dodig have had some good results of late; both will need big guns to be removed from their path though. Finally another rising star with plenty of talent if not focus, Grigor Dimitrov, will always interest some punters these days. For me he usually goes off too short but did finally break his ATP title duck recently.
So what's the conclusion? Well, the two players who fit the bill in terms of what I'm looking for are Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic. Sadly both are in the same section of te draw, slated to meet in the last 16.
I'll have to pick so I'm going to go with Raonic. He holds a 2-0 head-to-head lead over Berdych, while the Czech also has the tougher-looking opening match. There's also the danger with backing Berdych that he may feel winning a few matches before heading to London is OK for him. Janowicz showed last year what a thumping serve can do here so if Raonic gets his going then 40/1 may well look a decent price.
In the opposite half of the draw, Nicolas Almagro looks tempting at 100/1. The Spaniard is playing well and the slowish conditions on display won't bother him.
He's in a good part of the draw - Wawrinka is the higher seed in his eighth. Djokovic could lie in wait in the quarter-finals, athough it would be no great surprise to see the tournament favourite having already hopped on Eurostar by then.
So those are my two each-way picks to small stakes against the field. Here's hoping for the best in what is always a risky event to predict but one, if you get it right, which can pay handsome rewards.
- The action gets under way at 1000 GMT on Monday and is being televised live in the UK on Sky Sports.