The Cloudbet Blog teams up with Tennis Ratings’ @DanWeston to take a look at the clay form levels of the main contenders at this year’s French Open for both the men’s and women’s trophies.
A more normal return to Roland Garros in 2021
Last year’s French Open was tricky to analyse in advance, with the tournament rescheduled from its usual May starting slot to the end of September, plus fewer warm-up events. The lack of warm-up events meant it was difficult to ascertain player level on clay before the tournament started, leading to a number of intangibles which were difficult to quantify.
The 2021 season, however, is far closer to normality in terms of scheduling and there is much more usable data which bettors can utilise in trying to quantify the value. One area which many bettors may look at is the recent level of players on clay in the various warm-up events which have taken place so far this year.
The Men - Will Rafa still dominate?
As is often the case in the men’s tournament, there is a stacked outright market with the majority of the implied winner percentage from the title odds being distributed to market leaders - Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, in particular. This is perhaps unsurprising - Nadal has won 13 of the last 16 French Open tournaments and has lost just one match at Roland Garros in the last decade, while Djokovic is the world number one and the best all-courter on tour - but it’s still worth running the 2021 clay numbers to provide a little more insight.
The chart below shows the service and return points won percentages on clay in 2021 for the market leaders in the men’s tournament (Roger Federer and Daniil Medvedev are omitted due to a lack of sample size).
Here we can see that Nadal’s return game - previously so imperious - hasn’t been firing to such an extent this year. In fact, Djokovic has won around 3% more return points than Nadal this year so far on clay, which few people would have predicted in advance of the season. Ironically, Djokovic hasn’t hugely impressed on clay either, and has seen his stats perhaps become somewhat flattered with a procession so far in the warm up event in Belgrade which isn’t far from the world number one playing a Challenger tournament.
Back to Nadal, though, and his return numbers are markedly worse than in recent years - and this has to be a concern into the French Open; although it would take a brave bettor to want to oppose him.
Two to watch: Tsitsipas and Ruud
Impressing in particular in the clay matches in 2021 so far are Stefanos Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud. Tsitsipas has found a more balanced dynamic since the tour resumed, improving his return numbers nicely, and in conjunction with his strong serve - he’s won a higher percentage of service points than all of these major contenders on clay this year - it wouldn’t be difficult to envisage him making a real challenge for the title.
The 22-year-old Norwegian, Ruud, broke onto tour a few years back as something of a clay-court specialist, but has improved his all-court game and is going to be another threat to the top players.
The Women - Value to be found
We can do similar analysis for the women’s tournament as well, the chart below illustrating the same metrics for the numerous contenders for the trophy.
In what promises to be a very competitive event with many players justifiably thinking that they can get to the latter stages, tournament favourite Iga Swiatek has the highest combined figure - with the likes of Aryna Sabalenka, Ash Barty and Garbine Muguruza (the former two with more serve orientated dynamics, with Muguruza much more return-orientated) not far behind.
Several slightly lower-profile players who have plenty of upside based on these metrics include Paula Badosa - who has performed excellently on the surface this year, culminating in a tournament win last week in Belgrade - and Amanda Anisimova, the 19-year-old American. She isn’t perhaps renowned as a clay-courter, but has lost a number of tight three-setters as an underdog this year and, despite an inauspicious first-round exit, if she bounces back and remains focussed, could well be undervalued by the markets this year.
Several other players who may have flown under the radar of a few readers are Veronika Kudermetova and Barbora Krejcikova, both of whom are ranked outside the top 20. However, the duo have solid clay numbers - better than a number of players shorter in the outright market and ranked higher on tour - and are very capable of testing more illustrious players, particularly in the early stages of the tournament.
All told, the French Open promises to be a fascinating tournament on both sides, albeit with differing dynamics. Will Nadal’s historical dominance be tested? Will Swiatek develop into the dominant clay-courter on the women’s tour? We’ll be looking for answers over the next fortnight in Paris.