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  • Chris Sobey

Tennis


The eagerly awaited second Grand Slam of the 2016 season commenced yesterday and the elite of both the ATP and WTA Tours will attempt to lift the coveted championship trophies two weeks today. As is normally the case at Grand Slams the top-10 seeds more often than not contend the finals and the French Open is no different.

The men’s tournament has witnessed a seeded player no higher than eight win the last ten titles and fourth seed this year Rafa Nadal, has dominated the tournament over the last decade winning no less than eight titles in this period. Also a seeded player no higher than five reached nine of the last ten finals and the one exception was in 2009, when 23rd seed Soderling, reached the final where he lost to second seed Federer.

The top seed has won the title only twice over the last decade, the last time coming in 2014 when Nadal beat Djokovic and they were a losing finalist five times in this period. The second seed has won six of the last ten titles in this period, which bodes well for second seed Andy Murray’s chances this year, and they were a losing finalist once in this period.

World number one Djokovic has reached three of the last four Roland Garros finals and will be desperate to complete the career Grand Slam again, after coming within touching distance so many times in recent years. His task will be made that bit harder this year as he’s drawn fourth seed Nadal, who is looking stronger than last season, after winning his ninth Monte Carlo and Barcelona titles last month.

The two are drawn to meet in the top-half semi-final and if both reach this stage without any major drama it will be their 50th meeting on the ATP Tour. Djokovic leads the head-to-head 26-23 now and he’s won their last seven encounters in a row, including three on clay. Djokovic won the most recent encounter at Rome a week ago 7-5 7-6 and thrashed Nadal in straight sets at the quarter-final stage here last year. If they do meet at the semi-final stage this year, Djokovic will no doubt be favourite again, but I imagine this potential encounter will be a lot closer and if it is, whoever wins could well be at a disadvantage if they meet likes of Murray, Wawrinka or possibly sixth seed Nishikori or eighth seed Raonic in the final.

Defending champion and third seed Stan Wawrinka, who became the first player outside the top-three to win the title over the last decade, returns to Roland Garros again this year and while he’s had a disappointing season so far he will be buoyed by winning his home title at Geneva on Saturday, where he beat Marin Cilic in the final 6-4 7-6.

Second seed Andy Murray heads in to Roland Garros in arguably the best form of his career on the red dirt having reached back-to-back finals at the Madrid and Rome Masters this month. The way he won the Rome title was particularly impressive not dropping a set, including in the final against Djokovic who he thrashed 6-3 6-3. Murray has reached the semi-final stage at Roland Garros the last two seasons, including last season where he just lost to Djokovic in a thrilling five set encounter.

The French Open is the only Grand Slam he hasn’t reached the final and with a much more favourable draw this year, which includes third seed Wawrinka, fifth seed Nishikori and eighth seed Raonic, this could be the year Murray breaks his duck as his form leading in to this year’s championship is definitely on par with the likes of Djokovic and Nadal.

With Djokovic and Nadal on a semi-final collision course Murray has to be the bet to win this year’s French Open (17/4). Elsewhere, from a trading perspective I think eighth seed Milos Raonic is overpriced (119/1). Prior to losing at the second round stage at the Rome Masters a week ago he had reached the quarter-finals or better at the Australian Open and the other four Masters Series tournaments this year. At four of these tournaments he lost to either Djokovic or Murray and the only other player he lost against was Nick Kyrgios at Miami and Rome.

He avoids Murray and Kyrgios until the semi-final stage at least and Wawrinka until the quarter-final stage. Wawrinka’s form at major tournaments this year has been disappointing (lost to Raonic at the Australian Open) so it’s more than possible Raonic could spring a surprise at big odds this fortnight and if he does make the semi-finals his odds will have shortened enough to cash out on a decent profit.

Prior to Rome a week ago, this year’s women’s French Open looked like it was going to be one of the most open in the modern era. That was until world number one and defending French Open champion Serena Williams returned to the tour at Rome after nearly a 2 month injury lay-off. Serena proceeded to win the Rome Premier title without dropping a set, seeing off the likes of in-form players like Kuznetsova, Begu and compatriot Keys in the final without much serious effort, and in the process firmly re-established herself as the favourite to win a fifth Roland Garros crown and the elusive 22nd Grand Slam title of her glittering career.

From an historical perspective the women’s French Open, like the men’s title, has been dominated by the top-10 and best players in the world. Nine of the last ten titles have been won by a player ranked no higher than seven and the exception was in 2010 when 17th seed Schiavone won. Also, nine of the last ten losing finalists were ranked no higher than thirteen and the one exception was in 2012 when the 21st seed Errani reached the final.

The top-two seeds have not performed particularly well individually over the last decade, but they have won five of the last ten titles between them. The top-seed has won three of the last ten titles, the last coming in 2015 when Serena won the title, and they were a losing finalist once in this period back in 2009. The second seed has won two of the last ten titles, the last time was in 2012 when Sharapova won, and they were a losing finalist once in this period back in 2013, which does not bode well for Radwanska who has never been a major force on clay or at this event.

Top seed Serena Williams is the clear favourite to defend her title after winning the Rome Premier title so easily, but she has been handed a tough draw with the likes of third seed Kerber, fifth seed Azarenka, eighth seed and Morocco winner Bacsinszky, 12th seed Suarez-Navarro, 14th seed and former winner Ivanovic, 15th seed and Rome finalist Keys and 22nd seed and Madrid finalist Cibulkova all bunched together in the top-half of the draw.

Based on the above statistics and given her domination of the major tournaments when she is fit and healthy, Serena is definitely the player to beat again this year. The way she won Rome suggests she is in confident mood and close to her best again. More importantly she will be fresh after only playing one tournament over the last two months however, 9/4 is short given she’s had a back problem and with weather conditions forecast to be on the cooler side the first week I’d rather watch her play a few matches, wait until the midway point and then consider backing her.

Last year’s semi-finalist and recent Morocco Open winner, eighth seed Bacsinszky, looks capable of producing another good run again this year. Her section is more than winnable and with the likes of third seed Kerber, 15th seed Keys and 20th seed Konta’s section looking much tougher on paper, there’s no guarantees they would meet her in the quarter-finals. On paper Keys looks like the main danger, but Bacsinszky beat her here last year in straight sets, and with that in mind I recommend backing her to win the Second Quarter at 6/1.

The bottom half of the draw looks far more wide open on paper and the betting is headed by fourth seed and Madrid winner Halep (13/2), who reached the final here in 2014, and sixth seed and Rome semi-finalist Muguruza (11/1), who reached the quarter-finals here last year. Of the two Halep is the more consistent and stronger player on clay, her section of the draw looks easier to navigate on paper and if she can build momentum and confidence during the first week she will be difficult to stop reaching her second final.

Finally, 25th seed Begu is an experienced and proven player on clay and has been in great form this clay court season winning ten of her 14 matches. She made the quarter-finals at Madrid, where she lost to eventual winner Halep, semi-finals at Rome, where she lost to eventual winner Serena Williams and on current form Begu (16/1 has every chance of winning the Third Quarter.

From a first round match betting perspective local hope Pierre-Hugues Herbert leads the head-to-head 3-0 against Nice finalist Alexander Zverev. The three wins did come on hard courts between 2013 and 2015, but Zverev may be fatigued after his Nice exploits, and at 29/11 Herbert definitely represents value to cause the upset today.

On clay form this season there’s not much between 26th seed Joao Sousa and Damir Dzumhur. Dzumhur won their only meeting on clay easily in straight sets and looks overpriced at 23/15 to cause an upset and record his second win against Sousa today. All three previous meetings between Kukushkin and Mannarino have gone the way of the Frenchman, so it’s a surprise to see him the outsider at 5/4 considering his game clearly bothers Kukushkin and with that in mind I suggest adding him to a Treble or Patent with Herbert and Dzumhur above at 18/1.


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