2pts win Alex Zverev at 15/2 (Paddy Power, Betfair)
1pt e.w. Roberto Bautista Agut at 33/1 (bet365)
1pt e.w. Denis Shapovalov at 28/1 (Sky Bet)
0.5pt e.w. Kei Nishikori at 100/1 (Unibet)
Once dubbed ‘the fifth Slam’, the Miami Open certainly isn’t living up to that moniker in 2021.
A spate of withdrawals, most notably Messrs Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, mean that the world 118 is getting direct entry – surely the first time that’s happened at a Masters 1000 tournament since the category was created by the ATP Tour.
There are several reasons behind the tournament’s fall from grace but all stem from, you guessed it, Covid-19.
With only a few fans allowed, prize money has been massively reduced, putting some players off.
Others have opted out of a trip to the US given the changes to the calendar – the Indian Wells Masters in California usually precedes this event but that was cancelled this year leaving players in the awkward situation of having to head Stateside for potentially only one match. It’s back to Europe for the claycourt season after this.
There’s also the bubble life which has irked many players this season – it is hard to believe that didn’t come into the thinking of players with families, such as Federer and Djokovic.
Of course, a good field has still gathered in Miami – the world number 118, Denis Kudla, is hardly a bad player and 13 of the world’s top 20 will be in attendance.
As with many things in life right now, the disappointment comes from what has gone before – we’ve got used to seeing every leading player at this event, bar those with an injury.
Those who have committed head to the grounds of the Miami Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium, which staged the tournament for the first (and so far only) time in 2019 when Federer beat John Isner in the final. The stadium itself is not in use this year.
Prior to that, the event had taken place just outside the city on Key Biscayne.
Laykold has remained the surface across both venues. It is now also the surface of the US Open but conditions here tend to be slower than in New York.
The humid Florida air slows the balls down, fluffing them up quicker than elsewhere.
It is still possible to crush the balls and hit through the court, but it’s more difficult for those power players.
Talking of the balls, they’ve changed this year – the tournament having signed a new contract with Dunlop, who will replace Penn as official supplier. Their ATP Extra Duty ball will be used. We’ll have to see how if reacts to the conditions, although it is a ball used in many other hardcourt events around the world so the potential for controversy seems low.
OK, so the scene is set.
There will be no Big Three participation at a Masters tournament for the first time since 2004, a fact which opens the door wide for the younger generation.
New world number two Daniil Medvedev is the top seed and favourite. He’ll certainly be looking to take advantage of the star names’ absence, especially following his recent triumph in Marseille.
But that success – and his run to the final of the Australian Open – help highlight my concerns.
Both events were played on pretty slick surfaces – Marseille is among the fastest on the tour – and I think Medvedev could probably do with more pacy conditions to play his best tennis.
With the humidity resulting in heavier balls, his mix-it-up game, full of slices and improvisation, has the potential to be thrown off course.
The 25-year-old has never beaten a top-50 player in Miami and I’m happy to swerve him at 11/4 this week.
ALEX ZVEREV looks a better bet in the top half of the draw at 15/2.
The US Open finalist is another to have captured a title recently, winning in Acapulco at the weekend.
Unlike Medvedev, he’s played well in the humid Florida conditions in the past, reaching the final in 2018. He holds a decent 10-5 record at the tournament.
I’ve had my reservations about the German for some time – and still do to some extent – but what you can say is that his career has been streaky. When’s he’s on song, it’s often been worth going along for the ride.
Of his 14 ATP titles, six have been won in back-to-back fashion – the two Cologne events last season, Munich and Madrid in 2018 and Washington and Montreal in 2017. There are plenty of other examples of him making two finals in as many weeks, too.
Zverev also looks well drawn with Nikoloz Basilashvili, Karen Khachanov and David Goffin due to be his seeded opponents before the semi-finals.
All things considered, he looks worthy of support this week.
I’m also going to stick with ROBERTO BAUTISTA AGUT in this section – he’s in the top quarter with Medvedev.
The Spaniard delivered us a place win in Doha recently at 16/1, following on from a final appearance in Montpellier.
He also has some decent course form in the book having beaten Djokovic here in 2019 before losing 7-6 7-6 to Isner in the quarter-finals.
RBA does have a potentially tricky first match but Andy Murray is not the force he was, while Lloyd Harris won’t find conditions here as much to his liking as he did in Dubai, where he made the final.
After that, the path through the draw looks pretty good and it’s certainly worth noting that RBA has won both of his previous meetings with Medvedev, seeded to be his quarter-final opponent.
At 28/1, Bautista Agut also makes the staking plan.
Turning to the bottom half of the draw and we find Stefanos Tsitsipas seeded to make the final.
The Greek has been there or thereabouts in recent weeks, making the semis in Rotterdam, last eight in Marseille and then was runner-up to Zverev in Acapulco.
However, no title was won and he’s not got much of a track record here – his win-loss figures stand at 2-2 and, like Medvedev, neither of his wins has been against a top-50 player. Throw in some pretty negative comments about the player bubble in place in Miami and I doubt he’ll be living up to his seeding.
The layers actually have fourth seed Andrey Rublev ahead of Tsitsipas in the betting but he’s also got a poor record in Miami, losing five of his nine matches. In five attempts, he’s yet to go beyond the last 32.
His draw looks easier than that of Tsitsipas, which perhaps explains why his odds of 9/2 are half that of the Greek, but at that price the Russian isn’t for me.
Sadly the two bigger prices I like in this half are both in the same quarter, alongside Tsitsipas.
First up is DENIS SHAPOVALOV, who impressed in Dubai last week, making the semi-finals and only losing to Harris in a final-set tie-break.
The Canadian served well throughout the tournament, going unbroken in three of his four matches.
Conditions will be slower here but Shapovalov enjoyed these courts two years ago when he beat Tsitsipas en route to the last four where he found eventual champion Federer too good.
That run took his tournament record to 7-2 and there’s plenty to like about him at 28/1.
I also can’t resist getting with KEI NISHIKORI in some way.
He’s had some eyecatching results of late as he continues his latest comeback from injury.
The Japanese beat both Felix Auger-Aliassime and Alex de Minaur en route to the Rotterdam quarter-finals and also made the last eight in Dubai, defeating Reilly Opelka and the in-form David Goffin before losing in three sets to the red-hot Harris.
Nishikori is definitely on the upturn and I expect he will be relishing the opportunity to play here.
He lives in Florida having never left Bradenton where he attended the famous Nick Bollettieri academy, now owned and run by IMG, as a teenager.
In short, he’ll be in tune with the conditions better than almost anyone in the field and it’s no surprise to see he’s got some pretty good history at the Miami Open.
Nishikori made the final in 2016, while he has another semi-final and two quarter-final appearances on his CV.
Put it altogether and Nishikori looks a tempting price at 100/1.
He may have to beat Tsitsipas in round three but I’ve already picked holes in the Greek’s chances, while Nishikori won their only previous meeting.
Published at 1120 GMT on 23/03/21
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