Andy Schooler brings you his best bets for the men’s singles at the 2024 Australian Open, which gets under way in Melbourne on Sunday.
2pts Jannik Sinner to win the title at 13/2 (General)
1pt Grigor Dimitrov to win the third quarter at 6/1 (General)
0.5pt Casper Ruud to win the fourth quarter at 10/1 (General)
It’s 20 years since Roger Federer won his maiden Australian Open title and thus began a period of domination by the so-called ‘Big Three’.
Since then, only Marat Safin and Stan Wawrinka have prevented the triumvirate of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic from scooping the lot at Melbourne Park.
The Happy Slam’s reputation of providing the most upsets of the four majors has therefore taken something of a dent, although let’s face it, the other Slams have also been dominated by the same three names.
Times are changing though.
Federer is in retirement and Nadal is heading there – maybe sooner than he wanted after picking up yet another injury last week.
So, for this year’s tournament, only Djokovic remains but, of course, he usually takes some beating in Melbourne – of those 20 editions since Federer’s first win, the Serb has won a record 10.
Still, after its golden era, there looks to be every chance that tennis will return to something like what was once considered normality with Grand Slam titles being shared around and the odd surprise package emerging from the pack.
That’s how the likes of Thomas Johansson and Petr Korda won here pre-Federer, while shock finalists included Arnaud Clement, Thomas Enqvist and Marcelo Rios.
To be fair, that trend has been seen, at times, during the Big Three’s reign – Marcos Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzalez both faced Federer is finals here, while in more recent times Marin Cilic has made the final and Wawrinka has won it. Even last season, 16/1 shot Stefanos Tsitsipas finished runner-up - rewarding followers of this column.
The main reason for the tournament’s ability to throw up such surprises is its position in the calendar – weeks three and four of the season mean players haven’t had time to find their groove and unless they manage to hit the ground running, the chances of winning at this level are slim indeed.
Well, at least that’s some sort of theory for punters to consider ahead of the 2024 Australian Open.
Whether it works out is, of course, another matter and for there to be any sort of surprise, at least one of the world’s top two is going to have to fall before the final.
Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz fought out a ding-dong battle for the no 1 spot last season with the former ending the season on top. It’s therefore no surprise to see the pair dominating the betting – it’s 13/2 bar.
The market has a familiar look with Djokovic a heavy favourite and given he’s won on 10 of his last 15 visits to Melbourne Park, I have no doubt people will see value in odds-against quotes.
Another Djokovic title would surprise no-one, yet it’s hard to be fully convinced as things stand given the injury cloud hanging over him.
The Serb had problems with his wrist during the United Cup warm-up event and duly lost to Alex de Minaur. That isn’t somewhere you want to be experiencing pain as a tennis player, especially in the current climate of heavy balls – the Dunlop AO ball was last year among those criticised for fluffing up too quickly and being too heavy.
I should point out that Djokovic has overcome what at first appeared fairly serious injuries in each of his last two title runs in Melbourne and so there’s every chance things aren’t too bad again and that the injury won’t hinder him at all.
But, as I’ve written many times before, I’m only getting involved at short odds like these if I’m close to sure that the player in question is going to win and, with that doubt, I’m not.
It should also be remembered that while Djokovic won the ATP Finals back in November to clinch that year-end no 1 spot, he did lose to JANNIK SINNER in the group stage in Turin, a result which was repeated at the Davis Cup Finals.
And it’s that man Sinner who may just be worth siding with here if those upsets are to rear their head once more.
The Italian played some great tennis in the second half of 2023, capturing hardcourt titles in Toronto, Beijing and Vienna before then helping his country lift the Davis Cup.
Post-Wimbledon, Sinner went 9-1 against top-10 ranked players, a fact which should give him enormous confidence heading into the new season.
With a strong serve and some of the most powerful groundstrokes in the game, Sinner has real weapons with which to trouble his fellow elite and while he opted against competitive matchplay leading into this tournament, he has impressed at the Kooyong Classic exhibition event, posting comfortable straight-sets wins over both Casper Ruud and Marc Polmans.
The doubt with Sinner comes in the best-of-five format – the 22-year-old has played in only one Grand Slam semi-final thus far and certainly beating Djokovic over five sets is a much tougher challenge than doing it over three.
However, the way Sinner played in the latter part of 2023 very much suggested he’s ready to make the breakthrough at this level – something which has long been predicted.
A decent-looking draw could help. Sinner has landed in the second quarter where Karen Khachanov and Andrey Rublev are due to be his seeded opponents in the last 16 and eight respectively.
He is in the same half as Djokovic – the pair could meet against the semi-finals – but if you are only playing the win market then the likelihood was always that the Serb would need to be defeated at some point.
Given the injury issue surrounding Djokovic and the form Sinner has shown in recent months, let’s back the Italian at 13/2, which is widely available.
It would hardly qualify as a big shock but Sinner looks the best alternative to the two market leaders.
On the other side of the draw, punters will really be wanting to get the aforementioned Alcaraz beat.
The problem with that is he’s been very consistent at the Slams of late, making at least the semis at his last four.
However, none of those tournaments were here in Melbourne with the Spaniard withdrawing due to injury 12 months ago.
That means he’s still to go beyond round three at this venue, with his experience of Australian conditions rather limited – just eight matches played Down Under in his career thus far, with three of those lost.
Now, Alcaraz undoubtedly has the talent and skillset to put that right over the next fortnight but I think it provides enough doubt to look elsewhere in this section, particularly given he’s no bigger than 7/2.
The other top-eight seeds are Daniil Medvedev, Alex Zverev and Holger Rune but I’m not massively keen on any of them.
Rune is yet to win an outdoor hardcourt title and while I’ve already written about how I expect him to go well this season, I do feel this is probably a bit too soon for him.
Zverev doesn’t have the greatest tournament history – one semi-final appearance in eight visits – so Medvedev looks the most likely challenger of the trio at 9/1.
He’s as close to being a hardcourt specialist as you can get and the Russian has twice been to the final here in the last three years, as well as winning the US Open in 2021.
However, my worry here is that he’s struggled to deal with the very best players recently, losing five of his last six against Djokovic, three of the last four versus Alcaraz and the last three to Sinner.
He may get lucky and avoid all three but that seems unlikely.
Essentially, I’m ready to oppose the big names on this side of the draw, albeit I’m lacking real conviction.
There are, however, a couple of players I feel have some potential.
In the third quarter, that of Medvedev and Rune, GRIGOR DIMITROV may be worth chancing.
The Bulgarian was a 6/1 winner for us in the opening week of the season in Brisbane when he continued his love affair with Australia.
I explained that my thinking heading into that event focused largely on his record Down Under; now he has two titles in Australia, as well two runners-up efforts.
Dimitrov also has a strong record at the Australian Open, making at least the quarter-finals four times in the last decade, most recently in 2021 when injury got the better of him against Aslan Karatsev.
His best effort came in 2017 when he was just a handful of points away from his first Grand Slam final but eventually lost in five thrilling sets to Nadal. Interestingly, that was the year of his other Aussie title.
Dimitrov was striking the ball really well in Brisbane and it was reminiscent of some of his displays at Melbourne Park down the years.
I think he’ll be largely happy with landing in this section of the draw.
While 6-3 down on the H2H v Medvedev, he did win their most recent meeting on outdoor hard and also triumphed when they last met at the Paris Masters at the end of last season. Dimitrov is also 2-1 up on Rune, winning both hardcourt meetings in straight sets.
While Dimitrov did beat Alcaraz in Shanghai last autumn, he’s 3-1 down in that series and that is enough for me to feel that backing him to win the quarter at 6/1 rather than at 40s each way in the outright market is the better bet.
I’m also going to take a shot at a quarter bet in the fourth quarter which features Alcaraz and Zverev, and the man I feel has been underrated here is CASPER RUUD.
The Norwegian’s 2023 season was largely disappointing, although he did progress to the final of the French Open on his favoured clay.
However, his start to 2024 has been impressive and, crucially from a betting perspective, appears to have gone somewhat under the radar.
After winning both of his matches at the World Tennis League event in pre-season, Ruud officially opened his campaign at the United Cup team event, going 3-0 in singles, winning every match in straight sets. While his opponents weren’t out of the very top drawer, they were all ranked inside the top 40.
Of particular note was the way he served on the GreenSet courts, which tend to play quicker than average.
He won 86% of points behind his first serve and was broken just once across those three matches. The second delivery held up too, above 50% for the week.
Such numbers, if replicated, will make him difficult to beat and while clearly the level of opposition is likely to rise if Ruud progresses through to the second week, I think there’s enough to like here to warrant a financial interest.
Ruud has admitted that going on an off-season exho tour in December 2022 was a bad move, leaving him jaded this time last year.
That off-season change appears to have worked wonders so far and the draw offers up opportunity.
Cam Norrie and Zverev are possible foes en route to the quarter-finals but Ruud leads the Briton 3-0 and has defeated the German in their last two, including on outdoor hard in Miami in 2022.
The potential fly in the ointment is Alcaraz, possibly lying in wait in the last eight, as Ruud is yet to beat the Spaniard.
I’ll therefore keep stakes low but I can’t resist a quarter punt the 2022 US Open finalist at 10/1.
Posted at 0940 GMT on 12/01/24
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