French Open Preview

This preview for Roland Garros recaps the 2017 season to-date and highlights the current form and expectation level for the seeded players in the field as well as some long shots worth watching. The knowledge base is limited to Men’s Singles so this article stays in that lane.

The second major of 2017 is upon us and it has some interesting story lines to compliment what has been a fascinating 2017 to-date. Heading into 2017, the world of tennis had come to accept that the Majors and Masters would likely be divided between Murray and Djokovic while we may get some glimpses of past greatness from all-time players Federer and Nadal, now in the twilight of their careers. That notion was immediately flipped on it’s head when Murray and Djokovic were the victims of unlikely upsets and then Federer and Nadal had equally impressive runs in Melbourne, facing off in an epic 5-setter in the Aussie Open Final with Federer prevailing to win his 18th Grand Slam Title and his first since Wimbledon 2012. The AO win for Federer was no fluke as he cemented his status as firmly “back” with Masters Titles in Indian Wells and Miami (dispatching Nadal with ease in both tournaments).

In early April we began the European clay swing and from the first big stop, the Monte Carlo Masters, it became clear that Nadal was ready to re-affirm his position at the King of Clay (more on this below). Nadal got stronger each round eventually claiming his 10th Monte Carlo title and his 28th overall Masters Title on clay. He followed this up with a sweep in Barcelona the next week winning 10 consecutive sets for his 10th Barcelona crown (smashing Dominic Thiem in the final on the court that is now named in his honor). Nadal took the next week off and we saw some young blood in AZverev and PCB win 250 titles in Munich and Estoril, respectively, while Cilic took home his first title of 2017 in Istanbul.

In the first of back-to-back clay Masters in May, Nadal picked up his 5th Madrid Title in a venue he where he typically has a bit more difficulty. Fabio Fognini gave him a very tough 3-set test in his first match and Dominic Thiem had a second crack at Nadal this season in the Final coming up just short 7–6 6–4. Rafa’s undefeated clay run came to an end in the Rome Masters quarterfinals where Thiem finally broke through against a fatigued Nadal in his third chance. This cleared the path for a surging Djokovic to make his first big tournament Final, however it was not to be as 20-yr old Alexander Zverev stomped the past champ 6–4 6–3 to break his maiden at Masters level in impressive fashion, securing a top 10 ranking for the first time in his young career.

Outright Odds

As we head to Roland Garros for the last clay stop of the Spring, as expected Rafa Nadal is the overwhelming favorite to win the title. This leaves futures bettors in a difficult position of either laying the juice on an outright bet, or deciding “if not Nadal, then who?” At the current consensus price of -121 (1.82) this implies that Nadal has a 55% chance to win his 10th French Open Title, that percentage seems about right (if not a little low), but as discussed below there may be a way to secure a slightly better number with a moneyline roll or an open parlay staking plan given the overall strength of the field and the way the seeds have worked out. Draw comes out Friday the 26th, pre-draw analysis of the seeded players discussed below.

Note: Generally stated, when placing a future in the sub 5/1 range, you’re looking for the player to at least reach the final to have some hedging value. A future in the sub 12/1 range suggests a player needs to reach the semi-final, 25/1 range looking for a quarterfinal appearance, 50/1 to 100/1 hoping for Round 4. A future placed at higher than 100/1 is basically a lotto ticket because it is extremely tough to extract any value since they will likely be overwhelming underdogs even if they get to R4. The most fun/effective way to hedge a future is to buy some future stock in the opposing player as a swap if your guy loses.

The King of Clay

Rafa Nadal is the undisputed King of Clay. Not just the best player on tour right now on this surface but clearly and unequivocally the best player to pick up a racquet and hit the dirt. Having won nine (9!?!) previous French Opens, the soon to be 31-yr old Nadal has never looked sharper and is rightfully the heavy favorite to title. Not one for hyperbole here, but his accomplishments at Roland Garros will never be surpassed in this lifetime.

The question becomes, if the wisest play is Nadal to win, is there a way to beat the current consensus futures price of -121? To title Nadal must win seven matches and the moneyline roll odds are an unknown but given the overall strength of the field there is a great chance an open 7-leg parlay with Nadal MLs (or a ML roll if your book doesn’t allow open parlays) will very likely net odds better than -121 and potentially as high as +200 if the draw breaks just right.

After a deep dive into the historical odds, the above chart compiles the pre-tournament odds for Nadal to win compared to the net odds from an open 7-leg parlay. As you can see, the 7-leg parlay odds consistently beat the outright price and offered other advantages, such as in 2016 when Nadal withdrew prior to his 3rd round match and the parlay was canceled in lieu of an outright loss. Nadal set lines would potentially be ever more rewarding, especially in the early rounds where he rarely drops a set (except for dropping two in the 1st round to John Isner in 2011 somehow). Regardless, with Nadal going in seeded 4th and the field, especially at the top likely to make it well into the tournament, the potential for surpassing the future price is high.

Without the benefit of knowing the draw, the worst possible run contactable would be someone like Taro Daniel in R1, Chung in R2, Querrey in R3, Kyrgios in R4, Thiem in the QF, Djokovic in the SF and Stan Wawrinka in the Final. We would likely see odds in the ballpark of -2500, -2000, -1000, -650, -650, -250 and -300, respectively in those matches which would make the open parlay odds: 1.03*1.04*1.10*1.15*1.15*1.40*1.33=2.94 or +194 to win the title. Even if we see some upsets and Nadal is more like -500 in the SF or Final, the total odds would work out to +126, still beating the -121 posted now. For the sake of entertainment, we’ll run out a $50, 7-leg parlay and post the results at the end of the tournament, if it makes it.

If Not Nadal Then Who?

Roger Federer isn’t in the graphic above because he’s not playing. In fact Federer very wisely sat out the entire clay swing, so in a sense he is already a winner because he’ll take fresh legs into the grass season and the US Open, immediately making him the favorite to pick up at least one more Grand Slam title this year, which means Federer could finish the year with 20 Slams at age 36.

Novak Djokovic is the defending champion, number 2 in the outright market and one of two legitimate threats standing in the way of the King. Even as the second favorite, Nole is far from the peak of his powers just one year ago and his struggles over the last calendar year suggest all is not well with Djoker.

A brief recap, Nole completed his career slam finally winning the 2016 French Open at RG in his 12th attempt. Having conquered the world of tennis and fulfilled the dream of his childhood coach Jelena Gencic, Nole took a significant step back in his level of focus and intensity, allowing the world to sneak up and knock him off the top of the mountain. The next several months included a shocking early round loss to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon, a first round exit at the Olympics, a Final loss to Stan Wawrinka in New York and demotion to World №2 by Andy Murry in November. Many expected him to get back on track in 2017 with an Aussie Open title, however he was quickly sent out of the tournament by Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin, a career low point in the eyes of the tennis world. The struggle continued through the early season Masters and clay tournaments leading to the abrupt dismissal of his entire coaching and physio team pre-Madrid. In following matches, sparks of what made Nole so dominant were clearly visible and although he was unable to title in either of the French Open lead-up Masters, it is reasonable to predict a more focused and dangerous Djoker (accompanied by new brand Lacoste! and new coach Andre Agassi!!!) will be on hand at Roland Garros.

Best case scenario, we get an epic head-to-head with Rafa in the semis or final… worst case scenario is an early round upset at the hands of a tomato can like Andrey Kuznetsov, or equivalent. Not worth backing at +300 but well worth watching for signs of vintage Nole.

Stan Wawrinka is the only other past winner in the field and can’t be dismissed from contention despite a truly lackluster 2017 campaign. Year-in, year-out, Stan brings his best out for the major tournaments, having won three despite never being ranked World №1 (a distinction which he alone holds). Stan’s previous title at Roland Garros came in 2015 when he upset an exhausted Djokovic in the Final 4–6 6–4 6–3 6–4 as a +525 underdog; worth noting that Nole dispatched Nadal that year in the QFs and slogged out a 5-setter with Andy Murray in the SFs while Stan had an extremely favorable draw. Stan backed up his win with a second victory over Djokovic last year in the US Open and his general strength and stamina puts him in the conversation with Nole as realistic contender to title. His current odds around 13/1 are very nice and will be worth strongly considering once we see who ends up in his quarter of the draw; it may be wise to snap up that number now if you like it, if he ends up with Raonic or Nishikori opposite him in the top half with Murray, the 13/1 will become 8/1 or 9/1 very quickly.

Young Guns Looking to Make a Run (That Probably Will)

Dominic Thiem, in the eyes of many, is the strongest clay player in the world not named Rafael Nadal and it is only a matter of time until he secures his first Grand Slam Title. He made a semi-final run in here in 2016 which ended poorly at the hands of a peaking Djokovic. His run-up to the French Open this year featured better scheduling decisions and important head-to-heads, despite not taking home the hardware in the chances he had. On the plus side, Thiem is a fun player to support, easy to cheer for, always shows up with effort at 100% and on the right day he can beat anyone. On the minus side, his price absolutely reflects his status as a fan favorite. It’s somewhat surprising, even silly to see a player that has never won a Major or a Masters event listed under 10/1 but here we are looking at Thiem the third favorite to win the French Open at 9/1.

As noted in the season recap above, Thiem finally broke through vs Nadal in Rome (in his third attempt) but followed it up with a miserable outing vs Djokovic which is completely understandable for a young player. For him to win, Thiem will need a magical draw (i.e. fall on the opposite side of Nadal) and have Nadal get bloodied or beaten on the way to the Final all while not losing focus against more experienced players that he is capable of beating on talent alone. For me his outright number should be in the 20 to 25/1 range not 9/1, but that’s fine because there will be many opportunities to back this young exciting player along the way.

Alexander Zverev represents the future of tennis on an even longer timeline and potentially to a greater extent than Dominic Thiem. Having won the Rome Masters and entering the top ten for the first time, the world wonders how long it will take him to reach №1 and how many Majors he’s capable of winning. That’s a lot of pressure for a 20-yr old kid but to this point in his career he has handled exactly this kind of pressure extremely well at nearly every opportunity. He’s had a few hiccups in 2017 and fared very poorly against Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo (losing 6–1 6–1) but his flashes of brilliance against Nadal at the Aussie Open and at Indian Wells in 2016 would suggest he’ll come more prepared to compete should they meet again. Other than Nadal, it’s unclear if Sascha would be a significant underdog to anyone in the field at Roland Garros. In a dream scenario there will be opportunities to back him as a small favorite vs the likes of Kei Nishikori or as a small dog vs the likes of Andy Murray. In a similar light as discussed with Dominic Thiem, however, his future price at 16/1 is off the rails for someone who has never made it past the 3rd round of a Grand Slam. Again, someone to enjoy watching and backing often but not a future play worth making, especially pre-draw.

Young Guns Looking to Make a Run (That Might)

David Goffin is a guy that is intriguing because he’s good enough and experienced enough to make a deep run into the tournament, but also lacks the public support which suppresses the prices of the more trendy players. At age 26 we likely haven’t seen his best and he’s coming off career-best performances in many Majors and Masters in the last calendar year. At the current number 60/1, well worth a flier in the hopes he at least repeats his QF run from 2016 and potentially wins his quarter.

Grigor Dimitrov will someday reach his potential as a top dog on tour and may be a show-stealer in Paris. His 2017 has been very uneven after what looked like a breakout year on tap given his Aussie Open dominance; many would agree he should have been a finalist, coming up just short against Rafa Nadal in a 5-hr semi-final battle. Clay is arguably Grigor’s worst surface and he’s almost as equal a candidate for a 2nd round upset to an old fart as he is to making a QF or SF run. His general level of fitness, however, and his potential to break out make his 60/1 future worth holding, in the hopes he gets drawn into a non-Nadal quarter and makes another semi appearance.

Young Guns Looking to Make a Run (That Probably Won’t)

Jack Sock is the top American in Paris. He’s fun to pull for and may make some noise at Roland Garros in the years to come, but at this point in his career he lacks the focus and seriousness it takes to perform at your peak for a fortnight. His future at 150/1 is way under-priced relative to his talent level, especially on clay, so it’s worth a small, patriotic flier. He’s capable of competing and beating the Nishikori’s and Raonic’s of the field but will likely run into Nadal, Djoker or Stan buzzsaws at some point; expecting a QF loss from our top Ami.

Lucas Pouille is the Frenchman-in-best-form heading into Roland Garros and given the home-crowd support it’s always fun to hold a 100/1 lotto ticket on a Frog. Pouille has never made it past the 2nd round here but his past few months have seen him pick up an indoor hard title and a runner-up finish in France along with a clay title in Budapest (granted the field was very weak). His ranking in the Top 16 means he’ll hopefully be rewarded with a clean draw for the first three rounds allowing him to play himself into form and compete with the big boys for a spot in the QFs.

Grizzled Vets Who Will Win a Few Matches

Andy Murray the current World №1 has looked utterly toothless on clay (and in general) since seizing the crown from Djokovic back in November. We’ll break him down in much more detail pre-Wimby where he is the defending champ, but for RG his outlook is pretty straightforward. As the top seed he’ll get a favorable draw, he’ll beat the pants off a few tomato cans in the early rounds, people will start to wonder if they’ve underestimated Andy and then he’ll promptly no-show against a player he is leaps-and-bounds better than in the 4th round or thereabouts. Not even close to worth his 12/1 price; a R4 exit would be another 2017 disappointment, a QF exit would be predicable, a SF appearance would be a pleasant surprise, a SF win would be shocking and a Title would be earth-shattering given his current form.

Marin Čilić, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomáš Berdych and Richard Gasquet all fall into a category of unlikely to be upset by guys ranked significantly lower than them but even more unlikely to beat a player ranked above them. These are all guys that should make it through the opening week and then be summarily dispatched early in week 2.

Clay Specialists With Their Best Shot Here

Albert Ramos Viñolas, Pablo Carreño Busta and Pablo Cuevas have alternately looked like the best clay-specialists on tour in 2017. They’ve each shown flashes of brilliance that would suggest they can compete with the top dogs. Ramos upsetting Murray on his way to a Final in Monte Carlo, PCB with a breakthrough title in Estoril to go along with fantastic runs in Indian Wells and Rio, and Cuevas with his overall outstanding play over the last few months including the shot of the year (decade?) in an upset of Zverev in Madrid.

The expectations for these guys are tempered by the fact that they have excelled at best of three and none has shown much ability to take their game to the best of five level. None-the-less fade these three at your own peril.

Players Arriving With Baggage

Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Roberto Bautista Agut, Nick Kyrgios and Fabio Fognini are all seeded players arriving in Paris with heavy baggage. Milos and Kei are injuries waiting to happen this year. RBA hasn’t put together an impressive week of tennis let along two in ages. Nick always arrives with baggage, even moreso this year with an ailing hip. Fog would be a trendy play based on his recent form but has a newborn son and lacks focus even in the best of circumstances. The best approach for these fellas is to sit on the sidelines for their first few matches and watch for signs they have their act together then bet/fade accordingly. Depending on their early round match-ups it’ll be wise to avoid them as parlay legs no matter how tempting the price.

Team USA

John Isner, Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey round out the contenders from Team USA in France. It has been an eternity since the US players were relevant in this tournament and outside of Sock that looks to remain the case in 2017. Would expect the public to fade these guys because of the general disdain for US players on clay (and in tennis as a whole), so their may be value in backing them in the right spots. They’ve also each had moments of clear competence on clay in Europe but their late arrival to the scene and the field’s general fatigue may be as much of a contributing factor as solid form from our boys.

Seeded Guys Worth Fading

Gaël Monfils, Ivo Karlović, Gilles Müller, Juan Martín del Potro, David Ferrer, Gilles Simon and Mischa Zverev all head into the draw at Roland Garros as seeded players and with that comes some expectation of early round wins. However due to injury, current form, or general poor performance on clay, these fellas make the fade list and will be on the losing end of a shocker in week one, draw contingent. If you’ve been paying attention this season, none of these names should be a surprise with the exception of del Potro who has been bitten hard by the injury bug and will sadly be limited this week if he plays at all.

Long Shots Trying to Establish Their Chops

Outside of the seeded players, we’ve seen strong play from the likes of Borna Coric, Diego Schwartzman, Karen Khachanov, Aljaz Bedene and Frances Tiafoe this spring. None are household names but their ability to do some damage early in the draw is worth keeping an eye on.

Evgeny Donskoy… Just kidding, if you made it this far I applaud you, you’re a true tennis head. Donskoy doesn’t really have a shot I just wanted to put him on here because he’s the only guy who has beaten Roger Federer this year in a non-exhibition match, which is insane.

Have a fun French Open!