After tipping Dominic Thiem to win the US Open, Andy Schooler's turned his attentions to this week's Rome Masters. See who our in-form tipster is backing.
Internazionali BNL d’Italia
- Rome, Italy (outdoor clay)
And so in this strangest of tennis seasons, the claycourt season that never was, suddenly is.
Less than 12 hours after the US Open ends, the first ball at the Masters 1000 event in Rome will be struck to begin a five-week clay swing in Europe which, hopefully, will include the French Open at Roland Garros.
This event was supposed to take place in May but we’re now in mid-September and temperatures are likely to be slightly higher than they would have been back in the spring. The forecast is for the mercury to reach over 30C this week which could speed up the notoriously slow courts a little.
Whether the switch in date will result in a change in tournament outcome remains to be seen.
This event has been dominated by Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic over the past 15 years. Between them, they’ve won the title 13 times, playing each other in the final on no fewer than seven occasions.
The two players who have managed to break that dominance – Andy Murray and Alex Zverev – won’t be here. Neither will Zverev’s fellow US Open finalist Dominic Thiem or the man he beat in the semis, Daniil Medvedev.
On paper, things look well set up for a return to the norm.
Yet these are strange times and the fact is that Nadal is coming in having not played a competitive match since February.
Yes, he is the greatest claycourt player of all time and has been practising on the clay for many weeks but you can’t replicate match play against the world’s best players at your academy in Mallorca. There’s at least some risk in backing him this week.
He’ll face US Open semi-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta in his first match. Milos Raonic, Diego Schwartzman, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Djokovic – all ranked in the top 20 - will be his other opponents if the seedings play out.
Essentially I’m not prepared to back Nadal at 11/10 and if you need another reason let’s remember an oft-forgotten fact – that he’s only 5-5 v Djokovic in their last 10 matches on claycourts.
Maybe Djokovic won’t make the final but at 5/2 he looks better value for those looking to pick from the top two.
We’ll never know what would have happened but the top seed looked well set to win the US Open before he accidentally thumped a ball into a linesperson’s throat. He was certainly playing very well and the fact remains that in matches which have gone the distance, he remains unbeaten in 2020.
His level was pretty high in New York and what happened there will likely have only strengthened his resolve.
But all of those matches were on his favourite hardcourts. He’s had only a few days to prepare on clay – and interestingly chose to do so in Marbella rather than Rome.
He’ll probably be OK with the transition – Djokovic is a very strong claycourter – but it’s a switch which is never easy and also one which rarely happens in such a short space of time.
Djokovic’s draw has him down for a third-round meeting with either Felix Auger-Aliassime or Filip Krajinovic, his fellow Serb who beat him on clay during the ill-fated Adria Tour in June.
Then could be arguably the most awkward test, a clash with old nemesis STAN WAWRINKA, whose heavy hitting has often tested Djokovic to his limits.
I’m certainly tempted by Djokovic at 5/2 – even Nadal at 11/10 could look massive in a few days’ time – but my approach to these previews over the years has been to seek out longer shots who look overpriced and I’m loath to abandon that now.
The top two may well contest the final again but with the doubts created by the tour’s suspension and subsequent fallout, I think they are worth taking on to small stakes.
Wawrinka is certainly an interesting prospect at 28/1.
He also decided against travelling to the US Open and instead made his competitive return on clay at Challenger Tour level, winning a title straight away in Prague.
Admittedly the success came against limited opposition but the match play may come in very handy – we saw in Kitzbuhel last week how well the qualifiers performed with their clay legs already worn in.
Significantly, Wawrinka is a player who has often troubled Djokovic when they’ve met – the 2015 Roland Garros final being of relevance here.
He’s a former finalist in Rome, albeit back in 2008, while he also made the semis in 2015.
The Swiss is arguably Djokovic’s biggest concern – the pair could meet in the last eight – and so Wawrinka may be worth a small dabble.
I would have liked Gael Monfils to have been placed in the other half of the draw.
He’s a player who tends to start well after a long break, probably due to his ailing body having had a chance to recover from the tour’s rigours.
Five of his 10 tour titles have come in January or February – two of them earlier this year when he again made a strong start to a campaign.
Monfils is another who has focused on the clay season, rather than heading across the Atlantic, but the problem is Djokovic. They’ve met 17 times and on every occasion the Serb has won. Even at 50/1, I can’t back Monfils this week – he’s also due to meet Wawrinka in the last 16.
CRISTIAN GARIN is the other interesting one in this section. The Chilean has been a real eyecatcher at some of the lesser claycourt tournaments over the past couple of years and won twice on the South American clay swing earlier this year.
This will be his Masters 1000 clay debut but in his natural domain, Garin could go well and I would not be surprised to see him win a quarter which also contains Matteo Berrettini and David Goffin.
He could offer some value when the quarter markets go up – a semi-final spot is definitely up for grabs here.
In the bottom half, STEFANOS TSITSIPAS is regarded by the layers as the man most likely, after Nadal, to reach the final and it’s hard to argue.
The Greek beat Nadal on clay en route to the final in Madrid last year and while conditions there were faster than he’ll find this week, he’s proved he can play on the slower surfaces. He made the final in Barcelona two years ago and reached the semis here in 2019 when only Nadal proved too good.
Tsitsipas was playing well enough before blowing six match points against Borna Coric at the US Open. As long as that hasn’t left scar tissue, the third seed looks more than capable of winning the third quarter ahead of Fabio Fognini, the local hope who has never really delivered at his home event.
For those seeking something a bit bigger, 66/1 MILOS RAONIC may be an alternative to Nadal.
He suffered a surprise defeat to fellow Canadian Vasek Pospisil at the US Open but the week before had reached the final of the Western and Southern Open, also in New York, when it took Djokovic to halt his progress.
Essentially, Raonic has been in decent nick, post-lockdown, and his massive serve might just be the weapon which could catch a rusty Nadal out if they meet in round three.
Raonic is 8-2 down on their head-to-head but only one of those matches has been on clay and he’s actually won two of their last five on hardcourts.
Raonic is often written off on the clay but he’s managed results on this surface in the past. He’s made the semis here before and also been the last eight on more than one occasion in Monte Carlo.
His serve can cut through any court and if he can find the groove at the Foro Italico, he may have a shot despite his tough draw.
Posted at 1610 BST on 13/09/20
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