Andy Schooler picks out his best antepost bets for the four tennis Grand Slams in 2021, including a potential superstar at 50/1 for the US Open.
So, we finally have a (partial) calendar for the 2021 tennis season and, sure enough, it’s not as originally planned.
The first Grand Slam tournament of the season does, thankfully, have a slot in the seven-week period currently confirmed – it will take place three weeks later than planned.
Unlike last year’s French Open, which suffered a four-month delay, this won’t significantly alter conditions. Plenty of fans also look set to be in attendance.
Yet while some things will feel familiar, others certainly won’t. Strict quarantine protocols have been introduced, requiring players to spend two weeks in a hotel (admittedly with access to practice courts) upon arrival in Australia. There will be a single week of tournaments in Melbourne immediately prior to the Major’s start.
That makes the situation pretty similar to the one leading into this year’s US Open, which also came shortly after a long break. Many felt big upsets would ensue but in the end the men’s singles semi-finals contained three of the top five seeds. Had Novak Djokovic not smashed a ball into a lineswomen’s neck, it would almost certainly have been four.
The women’s draw was slightly more unpredictable with 28th seed Jennifer Brady and the unseeded Victoria Azarenka making the last four. Azarenka, admittedly a former world number one, made the final.
And it’s from the WTA side of things that I’ll make my pick for this event.
Given its position so early in the season, the Australian Open rarely offers much ante-post value – most players will go off the price they are now with the handful of movers usually being those who perform well in the lead-in events.
So here I’m looking for someone who has made changes to improve their game in the off-season and also someone with a decent track record at Melbourne Park.
The player who fits the bill is KAROLINA PLISKOVA, who is available to back at 20/1 generally.
I’m very encouraged by the fact the Czech turned to Sascha Bajin to coach her prior to the off-season, which she’s spent in Marbella.
Pliskova is now 28 and likely heading towards the end of her career. She’s been world number one but a Grand Slam title has so far eluded her, with her sole final appearance coming back in 2016.
Yet she possesses a big weapon in her serve and when she’s found consistency in her groundstrokes she’s proved hard to beat.
Bajin will doubtless look to improve her movement and add more strings to her bow – one of the biggest criticisms in the past has been when Plan A hasn’t worked, a Plan B has been lacking.
Crucially the German has been there and done it before, helping Naomi Osaka win two Grand Slam titles. He’s also worked as a hitting partner for Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki – all Grand Slam champions.
The pair will have been working on new things for the past month or so and if things have clicked, there may well be immediate dividends for Pliskova is someone who has often hit the ground running at the start of a year – she has won in Brisbane prior to the Australian Open in three of the last four years.
Admittedly she won’t be able to compete in Queensland this time around but her Melbourne record isn’t too shabby.
She only made the third round of the 2020 event but prior to that had gone SF-QF-QF. Hardcourts are her best surface and if Bajin has indeed managed to make those marginal gains, Pliskova may be able to break her Grand Slam duck.
The current, perhaps unwise, assumption is that the French Open will take place in its usual May/June slot after a full claycourt season across Europe.
After what unfolded in the autumn, it’s seems fairer to assume that whenever the event takes place, Rafael Nadal will again win the men’s title – he’s already no bigger than 6/5. I’ve often suggested Novak Djokovic as a value pick in the past – he’s 4/1 now – but the way he was dismantled in October’s final by Nadal hardly inspires confidence.
Two-time runner-up Dominic Thiem is other obvious title candidate but for those prepared to think outside the box, CASPER RUUD could be the man to side with at a whopping 150/1 (William Hill, 125/1 BetVictor).
The Norwegian really caught the eye in the claycourt events which did take place in 2020, winning Buenos Aires and finishing runner-up in Santiago during the pre-lockdown South American swing.
Upon the resumption, Ruud made his first Masters semi-final in Rome, beating top-20 stars Karen Khachanov and Matteo Berrettini before testing Djokovic. Fabio Fognini was also beaten en route to the last four in Hamburg.
His serve is a notable strong point – Ruud finished in the top 10 for service games won on clay. Some will point to lower-ranked opponents but at the same time some of those above him in the list had data based on just a few matches; he played 23 on the surface which is where he can be expected to shine again in 2021.
Ruud’s performances gained him the 11th-most points in 2020 and with clearly more to come from the improving youngster, he looks a player who certainly won’t be going off at this price.
The women’s market is much more open with the surprise 2020 champion Iga Swiatek heading it at 11/2.
As impressive as the Pole was at Roland Garros, she looks very opposable.
The shock success was her first at tour level. The last player to win her maiden crown at Grand Slam level was Jelena Ostapenko and she quickly slipped away.
While I’m not saying a repeat is on the cards, Swiatek is yet to show she’s capable of producing runs like on a regular basis. It’s also notable that conditions will be much different in 2021, if indeed the tournament goes ahead as planned.
The player I like the most at present in this market is KIKI BERTENS at 25/1 (BetVictor, 20/1 Sky Bet).
Unlike many of her contemporaries, the Dutchwoman loves to play on clay, happy to grind out points from the back of the court.
Six of her 10 WTA titles have come on the surface and over the past three seasons she’s beaten no fewer than seven top-10 players on clay.
She’s a player who could easily win one of the lead-in tournaments in the spring and I doubt she’ll be going off at 25s. Some firms are already as short as 14s which looks more like it.
Players totally comfortable on a grasscourt are few and far between.
Roger Federer (9/1) is one but following knee surgery, big doubts remain over the Swiss, who will be just shy of his 40th birthday come the English summer.
Andy Murray is another and, potentially, a more interesting bet at this stage. The 2013 and 2016 champion is out at 28/1.
The Scot didn’t play much in 2020 – the state of his hip still a concern – but he did manage to beat world number seven Alex Zverev, while the way he was prepared to battle to a five-set win over Yoshihito Nishioka at the US Open showed he still feels he has unfinished business.
If there is one last hurrah left at the top level, then Wimbledon 2021 probably has to be it.
Murray is back fit again and if he can play regularly and start winning enough matches to build confidence ahead of the grass campaign, he’s likely to go off shorter than 28s.
It’s not something I’m particularly confident about, but if you are looking for an investment this far out...
In the women’s game, few players take more naturally to the grass than ALISON RISKE and the American makes some appeal at 80/1 (BetVictor, 66/1 general).
Across the last two grasscourt campaigns, she’s won two ITF titles, one at WTA level and made the Wimbledon quarter-finals, losing only 6-3 in the third to Serena Williams. The world numbers one and four were beaten too.
Currently ranked high enough to be seeded, Riske looks the best pick for those looking to take a big price now.
What should be the last of the 2021 Grand Slams provides the best chance of getting a price now which could look massive come the first ball.
We’re eight months out from that point which means there’s plenty of time for improvements to be made and new stars to emerge.
The man who fits the bill is JANNIK SINNER, the world’s highest-ranked teenager and can be backed at 50/1 with BetVictor and 33/1 with most firms.
He may already be up at 37th in the ATP list but there’s still a big upside to his game – the Italian has been tipped by many as a future world number one and his trajectory so far has been impressive.
Both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic cracked the top 10 just before their 20th birthday. If Sinner is to do the same he’ll need to get there just after Wimbledon. It will take some doing, but the way he finished 2020 suggests he’s not without hope.
He won 13 of his last 16 matches this year, capturing his first tour title in Sofia and reaching the quarter-finals of the French Open during that run.
The 2020 stats back-up the theory that he’s the real deal. Sinner was fourth in the list for percentage of points won on first serve, while on the receiving side, he finished seventh for return games won.
Despite his physique still changing, Sinner already has the power to trouble the elite and he could well be being talked about as a potential champion of this event come the summer. I doubt he’ll be a 50/1 shot.
The women’s market makes less appeal although those who like to follow statistical trends should note that Serena Williams is available to back at 11/1.
This is despite the fact she’s played in six of the last 10 finals, winning three. She missed one of those tournaments and in the other three she made the semis.
The little we saw of Williams in 2020 suggested she’s still more than capable of competing at this level and the US Open is sure to be one of her top targets in the coming year.
Posted at 0750 GMT on 22/12/20
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