1pt e.w. Roberto Bautista Agut to win the Qatar Exxonmobil Open at 16/1 (bet365)
1pt e.w. Borna Coric to win the Qatar Exxonmobil Open at 18/1 (bet365)
0.5pt e.w. Mackenzie McDonald to win the Open 13 Provence at 66/1 (BetVictor, bet365, Betfred)
0.5pt e.w. Mikhail Kukushkin to win the Open 13 Provence at 80/1 (bet365)
1pt e.w. Federico Coria in Chile Dove Men+Care Open at 22/1 (Paddy Power)
0.5pt e.w. Nicolas Jarry in Chile Dove Men+Care Open at 50/1 (Paddy Power, bet365, Unibet)
The Doha tournament has been a big beneficiary of the changes forced upon the 2021 ATP Tour calendar.
Relegated to something of an after-thought by the creation of the ATP Cup in 2020, it would have had no chance of attracting a strong field in its usual January slot.
As it is, seven of the world’s top 20 will be in attendance this week, although the story will be all about just one of those men – Roger Federer.
Having recovered from knee surgery, something he underwent twice in 2020, the Swiss will play his first match in almost 14 months here.
Such is the greatness in the 39-year-old’s racquet that he’s no bigger than 4/1 to return with a victory. That’s a price which makes him second favourite behind top seed Dominic Thiem.
Doubtless the layers remember how Federer returned from his last lengthy injury lay-off – by winning the 2017 Australian Open.
But, four years on, I can’t have him at 4/1, no matter what he’s achieved in the game.
Judging him on his word, Federer doesn’t seem that fussed about how things go this week – Wimbledon is clearly his main target.
“It’s still about building up, being stronger fitter and better,” he said. “I hope that by Wimbledon I am going to be 100 per cent. Everything until then, see how it goes, I might surprise myself. But right now I take it day by day. Everything starts hopefully with the grass.”
I wouldn’t be surprised to see him to lose his first match. It will be against either Dan Evans or Jeremy Chardy, two players who have started 2021 impressively.
Chardy certainly made my shortlist at 50/1. He’s already reached two ATP semi-finals this season, winning eight matches at tour level.
He trails Federer 4-1 on the head-to-head but has regularly tested him – three of their matches have gone to a final set.
However, it’s another man who has troubled Federer in the past that I’m going to side with in this section, namely BORNA CORIC.
He played well in Rotterdam last week where he made the semi-finals.
The Croat faces a fairly quick transition to what will be faster courts – they are now on DecoTurf in Doha and the fact Petra Kvitova won the ladies’ event last week tells you the pace is fairly quick.
However, Coric has performed on such surfaces before and indeed that brings me back to his record against Federer, whom he beat on the fast Shanghai courts in 2018.
Overall he’s 2-3 v Federer with two of the defeats coming in a decider. He should be expected to test the Swiss if they do meet.
Coric’s path to a potential quarter-final with Federer is Malek Jaziri followed by Nikoloz Basilashvili or John Millman.
That looks decent enough and with the other seeds in this half being David Goffin and Denis Shapovalov, I think the price of 18/1 is a fair one.
Up in the top half, Thiem leads the way as he returns for the first time since a frankly disappointing Australian Open campaign.
The Austrian came back from the dead to beat Nick Kyrgios but Grigor Dimitrov then delivered a knockout punch in ruthless fashion with Thiem well short of his best form.
Ahead of his return, Thiem has admitted: "I can’t tell you exactly where I’m at. I want to find my rhythm as fast as possible, gaining self-confidence through victories."
That doesn’t sound like a man in a peak mental condition and at 3/1 he therefore looks pretty short, especially when you consider he may have to beat Melbourne semi-finalist Aslan Karatsev, ROBERTO BAUTISTA AGUT and Andrey Rublev just to make the final.
In what was a miserable preview last week, one thing I did get right was Rublev’s potential in Rotterdam where, at time of writing, he is contesting the final.
However, he’ll play here less than 48 hours after leaving the Netherlands which can’t be ideal. He’s definitely playing well enough to win here but he’s 9/2 this week – shorter than last and now facing a stronger field.
I’ll therefore leave him alone and instead go with Bautista Agut who looks a spot of value at 16/1.
The Spaniard famously beat Novak Djokovic in Doha a couple of years ago en route to the title and while the court surface is a tad different now, he’ll likely relish returning to a happy hunting ground.
RBA finished runner-up to Goffin in Montpellier recently to show he’s in good nick and I can therefore excuse the shock loss in the first round of Rotterdam just three days later.
He actually leads Thiem 3-1 in their previous meetings, although they were all a few years ago now.
Reilly Opelka has the potential to trouble Bautista Agut in round one – that would be typical after we backed him last week and he duly lost first up – but the big American has had problems playing the big points of late. He again failed in tie-breaks last week and Bautista Agut has really got stuck into his second serve in their previous meetings.
In what promises to be a competitive half of the draw, the battling Spaniard represents the best value.
The Gerflor surface in Marseille is known as one of the fastest on the ATP Tour and it makes strong sense to follow those with a game to match.
I remember backing Ugo Humbert here at a big price a couple of years ago only for him to lose in the semi-finals.
His ability to come forward and volley well is a good characteristic to have here, while he’s also French and that’s usually a good thing for punters in an event in France, as I mentioned in my Montpellier preview a couple of weeks ago.
Seven of the last 15 winners of this title have been from the host nation and Humbert will lead the home bid this time around.
While he will hold a good chance if he brings his A-game, I’m afraid to say there looks little value in him at 8/1.
Humbert disappointed in Montpellier when I tipped him at a similar price and he was also beaten early in Rotterdam last week, blowing match points (not for the first time) against Jeremy Chardy.
He’s also got a tough draw here with a meeting with either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Feliciano Lopez first up. Both men thrive in fast conditions and it’s not difficult to envisage another narrow defeat in that one.
There’s also the presence of two-time defending champion Stefanos Tsitsipas in his half of the draw, while the top half is led by soon-to-be world number two Daniil Medvedev.
I’ll resist backing Humbert again, although I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to put it all together in these conditions.
Medvedev and Tsitsipas are the class of the field – the only top-20 players involved – but neither is above 7/2 and I’m also happy to pass them over.
Medvedev lost in his first match in Rotterdam to Dusan Lajovic so has hardly had much of a chance to play himself into form indoors.
He’s another with a testing draw with indoor specialist Egor Gerasimov no gimme in his (likely) opener. Jannik Sinner could follow with his fellow Russian Karen Khachanov, who played well in Rotterdam, seeded to progress to the semi-finals.
Tsitsipas has proved he can play on these slick courts over the past two years and is sure to have his backers.
Yet he’s got the problem of making the transition from Rotterdam, where it played much slower this year. The Greek was involved in the semi-finals there on Saturday.
He could face a two-time Marseille finalist, Lucas Pouille, first up. Again, I’ll look elsewhere.
As you can probably tell, I’m hardly brimming with confidence about anyone in the draw but looking for someone who is likely to handle the conditions well, I turn to MIKHAIL KUKUSHKIN.
The Kazakh has loved a fast indoor court over the years, helping his nation punch well above their weight in the Davis Cup thanks to such surfaces.
He’s shown it on these very courts too, finishing runner-up in 2019 when he beat Shapovalov, Rublev and Humbert en route to the final.
Kukushkin looks pretty well drawn with a qualifier to start before a likely clash with seventh seed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.
Humbert could follow in the last eight but if ‘Kuku’ has made it through the first two rounds, he’ll be a lot shorter than his original 80/1 odds.
Yes, his form isn’t great, but he did test both Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka on the speedy courts of Melbourne last month. Given the circumstances, I’ll take a small-stakes, each-way punt.
The finalist in the top half looks most likely to come from the top quarter where Medvedev and Sinner reside but it might be worth taking a chance on a big price in the second quarter.
Khachanov is the clear favourite to come through this part of the draw but it’s a long time since he’s been in a final of any sort – 2018 to be precise - and the Russian is another who will arrive from Rotterdam and find the court much faster than what he’s just been playing on.
Given the paucity of quality in this section, Khachanov may well be able to overcome that hurdle but he’s too short for me at 7/1.
Again I’ll try the long shot with the man in the frame being MACKENZIE MCDONALD at 66/1.
That looks a big price given his form and he would certainly be a tricky first foe for Khachanov should they meet.
He’ll first need to get past Stefano Travaglia but I like the American’s chances.
He impressed Down Under, reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open during which Borna Coric was among his victims.
He was quickly back in action, heading to Nur-Sultan for a Challenger event in Kazakhstan where he defeated home hope Kukushkin en route to the title.
McDonald has been serving well in the early weeks of the campaign and is a player who likes to attack.
These conditions will allow him to do that and so I’ll put some loose change on him too.
Last week’s Argentina Open would have been a tough watch for followers of this column.
Francisco Cerundolo, our 50/1 each-way pick in Cordoba, decided to come to the party a week late – reaching the final in Buenos Aires instead.
The ‘Golden Swing’ has subsequently been a disappointing period for this column but there’s still a week to go in South America and potential for another big-priced finalist in Santiago.
The Chile Open only returned to the calendar last season and with it having previously been held at a different venue (Vina del Mar) there’s not much course form to go on.
While Vina del Mar is down on the coast, Santiago is up in the foothills of the Andes, sitting at an altitude of almost 600m.
That’s not dis-similar to the recent tournament in Cordoba, one which looks a more useful yardstick than last week’s at sea level in Buenos Aires.
The balls fly through the air that bit quicker in these conditions. Control is a bit tougher but those who hit it hard and have that control will prosper.
Home hope Cristian Garin heads the field but he’s only just back from an injury lay-off and it was no surprise to see him exit in round one last week.
He’s probably the best claycourter in this field but with very little tennis in his legs, it’s hard to get enthused about the 11/2 favourite.
Next in the market is Laslo Djere at 7/1. He played well in Buenos Aires last week but as already stated, these are different conditions and frankly I’d want a bigger price before getting involved with the capable but inconsistent Serb.
Second seed Benoit Paire is another easily overlooked – his effort in Buenos Aires last week was nothing short of disgraceful. A fine is surely coming his way and it’s hard to see how he’ll be mentally ready here.
So which of the dirtballers do we side with?
The Cerundolo brothers – Cordoba winner Juan Manuel and Buenos Aires runner-up Francisco – are both now pretty short. Having performed well at a similar altitude in Cordoba, the former is probably the pick of the two at a best price of 25/1 but expecting a repeat of something that special is probably too much.
At a similar price, I like the look of FEDERICO CORIA.
He’s been playing well in this South American leg of the tour, most significantly reaching the semi-finals in Cordoba.
He beat Francisco Cerundolo there and also Paire before losing to the eventual champion in three sets.
Francisco took his revenge in Buenos Aires last week en route to the final so he’s been beaten by good, in-form players.
After years of graduation on the Challenger circuit, Coria is now at a career-high in the rankings and looks ready to establish himself on the main tour.
At 22/1, the Argentine makes appeal.
In the bottom half, I’m going to risk backing the returning NICOLAS JARRY.
He controversially has a wild card having served a drugs ban but his early performances have offered encouragement.
In his first event back, a Challenger in Chile, Jarry was beaten 7-5 in the third set by Francisco Cerundolo.
Then on his return to the main tour he defeated Jaume Munar is Cordoba before losing to a dialled-in Paire.
Born in Santiago and a current resident of the city, Jarry is very much at home this week and his record here is strong.
He won a Challenger in Snatiago in 2017 having finished runner-up at another earlier that year. Those events came less than a year after a victory in the city on the Futures Tour.
Of course, this is a step up but Jarry has contended at this level in the past.
On his last full year on the tour, 2019, he made ATP finals in both Bastad and Geneva, winning the former. The previous season, he was runner-up in Sao Paulo.
It’s notable that both Geneva and Sao Paulo are venues at a significant altitude.
Jarry’s serve should earn him plenty of free points here, if he able to get a run going.
He does start with a tough opener against Frances Tiafoe but I remain to be convinced by the American on this surface and I’ll happily take him on.
It may be too early in Jarry’s comeback to expect a deep run but that benefit of home comforts could make all the difference in what is hardly the strongest field ever assembled.
A small play at 50/1 is warranted.
Published at 1600 GMT on 07/03/21