Net Talk: Bag the clay value
With the European claycourt season about to begin, our Andy Schooler picks out his early fancies for French Open glory.
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The European claycourt season gets under way this coming weekend in the stunning setting of the Monte Carlo Country Club.
However, it's just the start of the long road to the ultimate prize of Roland Garros.
Much will unfold in the next couple of months as the claycourt specialists come to the fore and launch their French Open title bids.
At this point in the season, there's often some betting value to be had in the French Open markets with the layers often not paying enough attention to previous clay form.
There are plenty of players who have struggled so far this term who will start winning matches over the next few weeks. Their prices will shorten so now's the time to look for an ante-post bet or two.
On the men's side of things, my bet is clear - Novak Djokovic is too big at 9/5.
The clay season has been pretty easy to predict over the past decade. It starts with a win in Monte Carlo for Rafael Nadal and ends at Roland Garros with a win for Rafael Nadal.
However, there have been plenty of signs that the Spaniard's dominance may be about to finally end and if it that does happen then the man to fill the gap is surely Djokovic.
It's almost certain already that the pair will be seeded first and second at Roland Garros and if you can get evens or better about them meeting in the final, I'd take it.
And Djokovic, the man for whom the French Open now means so much (it would give him the career Grand Slam), now looks capable of edging that battle.
First, look at the pair's claycourt meetings in the last three years. In 2011, the year Djokovic really came to the top table, he posted two wins over Nadal on the surface and it seemed likely another would have followed had he not lost in the semis at Roland Garros to Roger Federer.
Djokovic also pushed Nadal hard in the following year's final and had him rocking before rain stopped play and forced a Monday finish.
And last season he pushed him even harder in the pair's semi-final clash in Paris. The Serb was a break up in the final set but eventually went down 9-7. That epic, which Djokovic might well have won had he not been distracted by the slippery state of the court, came a few weeks after the 'Djoker' had ended Nadal's incredible unbeaten run in Monte Carlo.
In short, Djokovic has been close to Nadal's equal on clay in recent years without wresting the Roland Garros crown from his grasp.
He'll have another great shot at it this year though and I feel this could well be the year Nadal suffers only his second ever defeat at the claycourt Slam.
Djokovic has dominated the pair's last three matches, admittedly all on a hardcourt, winning each in straight sets. However, the way he moved Nadal about in the most recent of those, the Miami final, was particularly noteworthy.
Nadal will feel the change of surface can swing things back his way but I'm not at all convinced about that and feel Djokovic is a cracking price right now. I can't see it lasting if Djokovic beats the Spaniard in Monte Carlo, Madrid or Rome which seems more than possible so now is the time to get on.
Moving onto the women's side of things, Serena Williams looks a very opposable favourite right now.
The defending champion is no bigger than 6/4 but certainly isn't playing at the consistently high level she was this time 12 months ago. Yes, she's won big titles in Brisbane and Miami but she's also lost to some unlikely names in Jana Cepelova, Alize Cornet and Ana Ivanovic. Clay is not her favourite surface and, right now, she simply has to be taken on.
The question is, with whom?
Fitness concerns surrounding Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova make them far from enticing bets. Former champion Li Na looks better value at 8/1 but at this point I want a bigger price.
The two I'll take at this stage are Dominika Cibulkova and Sara Errani.
Sadly Cibulkova isn't the three-figure price she was in Australia where she made the final out of the blue, but 40/1 could still look big in a few weeks' time.
The Slovak hasn't looked back since that unexpected run. She won in Acapulco, made the last eight in Indian Wells and then the semis in Miami. The likes of Agnieszka Radwanska and Petra Kvitova have been among her victims; this after she beat four top-16 seeds in Melbourne.
The surface switch clearly will ask new questions of the pocket rocket but she's performed well at Roland Garros in the past with a semi-final run in 2009 including a crushing win over Sharapova, while two years ago Azarenka was defeated as Cibulkova made the last eight.
With her groundstrokes so solid right now and confidence sky-high, I can see the winning streak continuing on her return to Europe and if that happens then she won't be going off at 40/1 in Paris.
Errani is another player I can see notching up victories in the coming weeks as she returns to her favourite surface.
She did make the final of the Paris Indoors but overall 2014 has been the best so far for the Italian. That's no real surprise though - the majority of her success comes on the red dirt where those with more power find their game significantly blunted.
The past two seasons have brought claycourt wins and titles aplenty and Errani's ability on the surface has been shown in her Roland Garros results. Last year she made the last four; the year before she finished runner-up.
Look at her weak serve and small frame and you wonder how she's garnered the results she has. But Errani has that clay specialist's ability to build points and grind opponents down and it's a formula which works.
Currently available to back each way at 33/1, Errani is another player I can see going off shorter.
Others worth consideration include former champion Ana Ivanovic, twice a title winner this season, at 50/1 but for me she is prone to too many mid-match lapses - just look how she lost 12 games in a row to Petra Kvitova in Miami.
Flavia Pennetta is another player who has been racking up wins aplenty in recent times, significantly in the bigger events too. She's backed up her semi-final run at last year's US Open with a quarter-final appearance at the Australian Open and the biggest title of her career in Indian Wells.
The question is can she take that confidence onto the clay and start producing the same results? Her claycourt history would suggest it's not that likely and it's enough to put me off, but I can see her having supporters at her current price of 66/1. It might just turn out to be worth the risk.
If you fancy backing any of the suggestions above, full French Open outright markets can be found on our betting partner Sky Bet's website.
Following the weekend's action, they now have Switzerland as odds-on favourites for the Davis Cup at 4/6 with my headline ante-post picks France offered at 7/2. Switzerland host Italy and France entertain the Czech Republic in September's semi-finals.
Finally, if you missed it at the weekend, here's my preview of this week's action on the ATP World Tour with events taking place in Casablanca and Houston.
Stat of the week
Andy Murray's weekend loss to Fabio Fognini in Naples was just the second singles defeat of his Davis Cup career. He had won 19 singles rubbers in a row since losing his first to Stanislas Wawrinka back in 2005.
What you may have missed
Great Britain bowed out of the Davis Cup at the quarter-final stage, losing 3-2 to Italy in Naples.
Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic also made it through to the last four of the Davis Cup.
This week in tennis
All week - The ATP stages tournaments in Casablanca and Houston, while the WTA heads to Katowice and Bogota.
Tuesday - The draw for September's Davis Cup World Group play-offs takes place with plenty of big guns waiting to discover their opponents, including Spain, Serbia, USA and Argentina.
Wednesday - The team line-ups for this month's Fed Cup semi-finals will be confirmed.
Sunday - It's a Sunday start for the first claycourt ATP Masters 1000 tournament of the season in Monte Carlo.
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