Women’s tennis has had a nice surge in intrigue in the last few days with the announcement that Serena is out for the season. But the ladies side of the draw isn’t the only one in major flux. The men’s field is as wide open as it has been in nearly a decade as well, but for a totally different reason; the dominant players -the “Big Four” are less dominant than at any point in recent memory and the next generation has had half a decade to emerge – but still has not. The five best players in the world are all 29 years of age or older, and the best player in 2017 is far, far older.
Roger Federer is five years into the “when is he going to retire” portion of his career, Rafa misses more tournaments to injury that he participates in, Andy Murray had the best season of his career in 2016, but is off to a less-than-dazzling start in 2017 with a fourth-round loss in Australia and early losses in his last two tournaments; the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters and the BNP Paribas, and Novak Djokovic, who seemed on a clear path to seize a three or four year run after winning six of eight majors from late 2014 to 2016, has been a slightly different guy. He lost in the second round at the Aussie, his worst showing since 2008, and hasn’t made it past a quarterfinal in a major since.
For the first time in a long time, it is fair to say that the French Open is WIDE OPEN.
The draw won’t happen for another three or four weeks, but here is an early look at some odds to win the 2017 French Open at Roland Garros (Odds current as of 4/27 on Bovada).
#1. The Favorite – Rafael Nadal +150
Any discussion about Roland Garros needs to start with its all-time greatest champion, Rafa Nadal. The nine-time French Open champion enters as a rather prohibitive favorite at just +150, especially considering he hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals at Roland Garros since winning in 2014, and hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals in any major other than this year’s Aussie Open since that triumph in Paris.
There is no denying he is the best male clay court player in history, but past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. 2017 has been a nice resurgence year for a finally-healthy Rafa. He made the Final in Sydney, has had multiple late-tourney matchups with old foe Roger Federer in some turn-back-the-clock magic (oddly losing all three times, considering their career matchup) and has a 25-5 overall record this year. His increased court time and on-court success have gotten him back to #6 in the ATP rankings, though a higher seed in Paris is likely given his well-earned clay court reputation. It would be only right to seed Rafa higher than his current ranking; how would you like to see him in the quarter-finals if you are Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic??
A healthy Nadal is an obvious favorite to win at Roland Garros, even at age 30, but given all his health issues over the last few years and the inevitable creeping of Father Time, a line as slim as +150 is not enough value for my liking, especially a month before the event.
#2. The Co-Favorite – Novak Djokovic +250
It hasn’t been an ideal start to the 2017 season for The Djoker. Nole was the unquestioned best player in the world from 2014-2016 and was beginning to amass a resume that edged him into the fringe of a legit GOAT discussion. He has won every major championship, owns 12 Majors and 9 Major Runner-Up finishes, has amassed more rankings points as the #1 player than anyone in history, and is the only man to hold all four major championships at once in addition to winning the Year-End Championship. His bonafides are ridiculous, and with Federer and Nadal undoubtedly on the tail ends of their storybook careers, the world has been Novak’s for the taking.
Until suddenly it wasn’t. He lost in the second round of the Aussie to Denis Istomin, the first time he failed to advance past the second round of a major championship since 2008 and the first time he has EVER lost to a player outside the Top 100. It was only the second time he failed to make the quarters in a major this DECADE and since then he has lost twice pre-quarters to Nick Kyrgios.
But perhaps reports of Djoker’s demise are a bit premature. He is still just 29 years old – far more in his prime than his two strongest contemporary rivals, and despite his unquestioned excellence on hardcourts (no one has made more hardcourt finals since 1970), he is also excellent on clay. He has been in four of the last five French Open Finals, losing twice to Rafa and once to Wawrinka before finally breaking through last year against Andy Murray, winning easily (6-1, 6-2, 6-4) after dropping the first set.
The odds are a little less beefy than I’d prefer at +250, but I think I’d rather take the value of the best player in the world at +250 than the half-as-slim odds banking on Rafa’s health.
#3. The Strong Contender – Andy Murray +400
The World’s #1 ranked player is just 13-4 this season, but is healthy and off to a good start at this week’s Barcelona Open on the clay courts in Spain. It will be a nice preview of how ready he is to take the last final step and finally add the French to his list of major championships. He lost in the Final last year to Djokovic after losing in the semifinals the two years prior.
The last year has been a positive one for Murray. He has taken advantage of some foibles by Djokovic to capture the #1 ranking in 2016 and maintain it today. 2016 was also a great year in Major Championships, losing in the Finals in Australia and Paris, and winning Wimbledon for the second time. However, he hasn’t lasted to the final 16 in each of the two most recent and clay isn’t his greatest surface. He is 14-4 this season, but his last three tournaments have been subpar with losses to relative unknowns Vasek Pospisil and Albert Ramos-Vinolas. It isn’t that uncommon for top players to coast a bit between majors, but his recent showings have been especially poor.
But more than any recent results, here’s my problem with betting on Andy Murray: On the surface, getting the World’s #1 Player at 4:1 odds feels like a nice value play. But his career clay record against some of his most likely foes is problematic. On clay, he is 2-7 lifetime against Rafa, 1-3 against Stan Wawrinka, and 1-5 against Novak. That is a combined 4-15 against the top competition in Paris. The draw will come out a few days before the tournament begins at the end of May, but almost definitely he would have to beat TWO of them in succession in order to finally conquer the clay of Roland Garrros, as I would expect the four to be seeded atop of the four separate brackets.
#4. The No-Respect Champion – Stanislas Wawrinka +800
For a seemingly-endless number of years now (especially with the odd resurgence of Federer at an advanced tennis age), men’s tennis has had their Big Four. The Stanimal was not a member of that elite and exclusive club. Perhaps it is being the lesser-heralded countryman of Roger Federer, the greatest major champion of all time, perhaps it is his relatively late emergence as a premier player who lacked the fanfare coming up through the junior ranks and in his early professional career, or perhaps it is just stubborn and lazy reporting. But for whatever, reason, Wawrinka continues to be overlooked as one of tennis’s elite superstars.
Wawrinka is currently ranked #3 in the world and is 15-6 this season with a loss to Nishikori and two to fellow Swiss rival Federer. His performance in Majors the last few years has been on par with the game’s best. He has made six of the last nine semifinals and has won two majors; the US Open and the 2015 French. His powerful backhand makes him a dangerous clay court player and someone to be cautious in overlooking. Like most of the top of the field, it has been an uneven 2017 campaign, but don’t be surprised to see Stan still standing in the final few days at Roland Garros.
#5 – The Venerable Veteran and Gentleman Champion – Roger Federer +1200
This HAS to end sometime, right? Right?? Most pundits thought the Fed Express was pulling into the station for retirement several years ago. After all, from 2013-2016 the 18-time Major Champion failed to win a single title and made only three finals. Four times he was dispatched before the quarterfinals, something that had previously not happened once since 2005. The end was near for one of, if not THE, greatest champions in tennis history.
And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Not by a long shot.
Federer started the season by winning the Australian Open, his 18th Major, beating Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal in the process. Then he won the BNP Paribas, again beating Rafa and Wawrinka, and most recently won the Miami Open, beating, yup, Rafa, in the Final. He has basically only played the biggest all-in tournaments this season and has posted a 2010-like 20-1 record. JAW-DROPPING! It isn’t just a great start for Federer at his age, it would be a great start for any player in the history of tennis in their World’s #1 prime. Even more impressive, over half his wins have come against Top 20 players – not just Rafa and Wawrinka, but he also has wins over Tomas Berdych, Jack Sock, Nick Kyrgios, and Juan Martin Del Potro.
This can’t continue, right? I mean Federer is half a decade past his prime in a sport that chews up thirty-somethings and spits them out like gristle. Perhaps this is just a brief, beautiful renaissance, but storyline aside, the way everyone is playing in 2017, I’m loving +1200 for the greatest champion in men’s tennis history authoring one more (last?) epic chapter. The most encouraging sign is the 3-0 record against Rafa this season; long the only man to ever have an edge over Federer. If he can top Nadal on clay, why can’t he grab Major #19?
Roger Federer is in top form and fitness and is ripping through the 2017 field like he fell in a Hot Tub Time Machine. Bet against this man at your own peril.
The French Open begins on May 28th in Paris, France
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