Andy Schooler previews the French Open men’s singles and is predicting that a new name will be etched on the trophy in 2023.
1pt e.w. Holger Rune for the title at 17/2 (General)
1pt Andrey Rublev to win the second quarter at 11/2 (BetVictor)
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For the past 18 years, Rafael Nadal has arguably been the star attraction at Roland Garros each spring – even on debut everyone was watching out for the 18-year-old ‘wonderkid’.
Yet surely not one of those people envisaged that teenage Spaniard going on to win the title 14 times.
To put that into context, consider these two facts – the previous record was six, set by Bjorn Borg, while 14 is the same number of Grand Slam titles won by the legendary Pete Sampras across all four majors.
However, there will be no Nadal in Paris in the spring this year.
A player who has had many injury problems in his career had always managed to avoid bad ones in this part of the season but a hip issue which arose at January’s Australian Open has proved too difficult to overcome. Indeed, it could yet be career-ending with Nadal’s latest update only really saying he was taking an indefinite break in a bid to solve it. A full recovery – and a farewell tour in 2024 – looks far from certain.
While bad news for the King of Clay and his legion of fans, it is undoubtedly good news for the rest of the field – only Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic have won here since Nadal claimed the keys to the castle back in 2005.
While Nadal hasn’t been odds-on in recent years (he used to be with regularity), there’s definitely a different feel to approaching this preview this year.
The ‘Big Three’ have shaped Grand Slam markets a certain way for so long that it is sometimes hard to remember how key factors like a kind draw and peaking at the right time used to come into play.
They feel more relevant this time around.
In terms of the draw, the big takeaway from Thursday’s ceremony was the fact that the two market leaders – Carlos Alcaraz and Djokovic – have been placed together in the top half.
Doubtless both would have preferred that not to be case but those who landed in the bottom section will already have felt their confidence surge.
Let’s start in with that top section with Alcaraz, the new world number one, top seed and title favourite.
It’s hard to argue with his position as the jolly. After all, he’s already won claycourt titles in Buenos Aires, Barcelona and Madrid this season.
However, there was also the shock loss to Fabian Marozsan, a player ranked outside the top 100, in Rome which highlighted how even the best can have a bad day at the office.
That’s if we needed reminding.
Alcaraz was favourite to win this crown 12 months ago but he crashed and burned with an error-strewn display in the quarter-finals against Alex Zverev.
Did the pressure get to him? Maybe – the youngster has long had to live with comparisons with Nadal.
But he certainly still hasn’t gone close to conquering Roland Garros and while he showed his propensity for a battle when winning last year’s US Open, I think it’s noteworthy that he’s played only one five-set match here – that coming when he found himself in trouble against Albert Ramos-Vinolas last year.
It’s a reminder that this isn’t Nadal mark II.
Alcaraz has still to show the remarkable consistency in terms of constant success on clay and also in the manner of those victories – Nadal became famous for dismantling opponents, often barely allowing them games.
While I do believe Alcaraz is the right favourite and the most likely winner, I don’t feel there’s much value in his price so it’s on we go.
In most other years, Djokovic would have been the easy alternative pick but again I’m struggling to justify odds of 13/5, especially given he may have to get through Alcaraz to make the final.
The Euro clay 2023 version of Djokovic has been far from vintage; more corked (but at least not sent back this year).
He’s lost to Lorenzo Musetti, Dusan Lajovic and Holger Rune during the current claycourt swing, during which he’s also bemoaned his movement, played with strapping on his elbow – a long-standing injury issue – and withdrawn from Madrid.
While there were certainly signs of improvement in Rome, where he lost to Rune in the last eight, Djokovic still looks a long way off his peak form and, for me, he’s being priced up on reputation here.
Of course, a player of his achievements and experience will be able to draw something from the past in terms of trying to find solutions but this has always been the Serb’s weakest surface (perhaps least-natural is a better term given the success he has had on it) and that’s showed in recent weeks.
Can he win? Of course. Will he? I doubt it, certainly enough to swerve at 13/5.
Marton Fucsovics and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina could both pose problems for Djokovic in week one, while I’m also liking the presence of ANDREY RUBLEV in this section.
Regular readers will know I’ve felt he’s been overpriced pretty much throughout the claycourt season – and we took advantage of that in Monte Carlo where he landed a massive payout at odds of 66/1.
The Russian was also a finalist in Banja Luka and those runs have helped him compile some impressive data.
Rublev has held serve 84% of the time on clay this season and broken in 33% of return games. Adding the two figures together produces a figure which provides a useful comparison tool – and Rublev’s 117 is only bettered by Alcaraz (122) and Jannik Sinner (118).
Therefore it is arguably surprising that he’s well down the market and available at 50/1.
While he won’t be happy to have landed in the same quarter as Djokovic, I’ve already highlighted the reasons while the Serb may be vulnerable.
And Rublev has an early draw which should allow him to gain some momentum heading towards that possible clash.
He’s twice been to the quarter-finals here in the past three years – and really should have beaten Marin Cilic last season.
Rublev is yet to go past the last-eight stage of a major but I feel his best chance may well be on the clay where he gets plenty of time to line up his groundstrokes.
Perhaps belief remains an issue – Rublev’s record against the top 10 still requires improvement – but it is with that in mind that I’ve decided to back him to win the quarter, rather than the tournament as a whole.
Djokovic is a short favourite here at 8/13 and Rublev at a best price of 11/2 (and a more widely-available 5/1) offers a bit of value.
My title pick comes down in the bottom half where I feel HOLGER RUNE is ready to take the next step.
His trajectory, particularly over the past nine months, has been remarkable and he arrives in Paris having been the only man to reach two of the three Masters 1000 tournaments in the build up.
The Dane should have won in Monte Carlo – he had a point for a double-break in the final set against Rublev – but he did triumph in Munich the following week so has been racking up the match wins.
A former junior champion at Roland Garros, Rune made the quarter-finals with an impressive run last season and will be delighted to have swerved Alcaraz and Djokovic in the draw.
There are early tests though – potentially Sebastian Baez, Miomir Kecmanovic and Taylor Fritz prior to the quarter-finals – but Rune looks mature beyond his years in terms of his decision-making, while there are few weaknesses in his game.
A feisty character on the court, he seems to relish any controversy and while the Roland Garros crowd is notorious for taking on players, Rune doesn’t look one to be fazed and, in any case, probably has credit in the bank with the French fans following his run of last season.
While he’s hardly an outstanding bet at 17/2, Rune does look worth backing.
The other main contenders in this half are easy to spot.
There’s second seed Daniil Medvedev, whose price has come in plenty as a result of his title run in Rome – the first success on clay of his career.
Still, I think it’s too soon to be proclaiming the Russian as a likely Roland Garros champion.
A hot, dry first week is forecast which should help but a wetter second week won’t be welcomed by a player who has often allowed external factors to get under his skin.
Last year’s runner-up Casper Ruud is also in this section but he’s struggled for form throughout 2023.
He looked on an upward curve in Rome but then lost early again in Geneva and while I wouldn’t totally rule him out, especially given his draw (same quarter as Rune), again I’m not enthused by the price which is 16/1.
Jannik Sinner if the other player well up the market and there’s certainly a case to be made for the Italian, another who has the draw to play himself into the tournament.
He lost to Rune in the semis in Monte Carlo, missed Madrid through illness and was then beaten pretty disappointingly to Francisco Cerundolo in Rome.
Sinner also has a miserable 0-6 head-to-head against Medvedev, his potential quarter-final foe, so while I respect his chances, I prefer Rune as my pick in what isn’t the best betting heat I’ve ever seen.
Rather than try to find more outright picks, I suggest saving your betting bank for the matches – I’ll be providing daily match bets throughout the tournament, the first of which will be published on Saturday.
Posted at 1635 BST on 26/05/23
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