Damien Kayat goes on the hunt for value in the round of 32 fixtures at the ATP's Italian Open.
2021 ATP Tour
Masters 1000 Series
Foro Italico, Rome, Italy (Outdoor Clay-Court)
Selected Round of 32 Matches- 12th May
Rafael Nadal 21/100 | Jannik Sinner 33/10
I don’t tend to do many previews of Rafa Nadal on clay as it generally seems such a futile endeavour. But the nine-time Rome champion has shown more vulnerabilities than usual on the dirt this year. Granted, he did capture the Barcelona title in resounding fashion. But the Masters 1000 titles have eluded him. In fact, he hasn’t tasted success at this level since 2019. The manner of his defeats has also been uncharacteristic. Losing in Monte-Carlo to hardcourt aficionado Andrey Rublev was surprising. Then he fell to a straight-sets defeat to Alex Zverev in Madrid last week. Obviously betting against Nadal on clay is fraught with danger (the equivalent of betting against Putin in the Russian elections). But there just has to come a time where these warriors cede control to the next wave of champions. And his opening opponent is one of those itching to join that party.
2019 ATP Newcomer of the Year Jannik Sinner has just gone from strength to strength over the past year. It actually started with a modest 3rd round run in Rome last year. That included a critical victory against the clay-court maestro Stefanos Tsitsipas. He followed that up by becoming the youngest French Open quarterfinalist since Novak Djokovic. He then showed his all-court potential by winning back-to-back titles in the Sofia Open and Great Ocean Road Open. Sinner then went through a slight lull before reaching his first Masters 1000 Final in Miami. He once again showed off his clay-court prowess with a semi-final run in Barcelona (though that was on either side of early exits in Monte-Carlo and Madrid). Perhaps the key to Sinner’s clay-court success is that double-handed backhand. The ATP stats reveal that it generates the most topspin of any backhand on tour. That makes him a dangerous opponent for Nadal, whose vicious cross-court forehands generally create too much topspin for his opponents. Sinner can actually go toe-to-toe in that regard.
Verdict: Nadal in three sets at 11/4
Nadal has unsurprisingly won their one-and-only encounter (a straight-sets victory at last year’s French Open). It may seem as if I’m gearing up for the massive early upset here. But I just can’t see Sinner overcoming Nadal in three sets. What I can see is the Italian pushing the Spaniard to win in three at 11/4. It’s the only way to find value in this match. And he has the tools to do it.
Stefanos Tsitsipas 1/10 vs Marin Cilic 6/1 *Forecast betting
It’s almost surreal that Stefanos Tsitsipas currently leads the ATP race rankings. Tsitsipas started the season strong with semi-finals at both the Aussie Open and Rotterdam event. He also managed to reach the final in Acapulco. He has also negotiated the switch to clay brilliantly. Tsitsipas has always been an exceptional clay-court player. He won his 1st clay-court title at Estoril in 2019. That same year he reached a Masters 1000 Final in Madrid. Last year he enjoyed a tremendous run to the Roland Garros semi-final. This year has only seen him enhance that reputation. He won his maiden Masters 1000 title in Monte-Carlo before losing to Rafa in the Barcelona Open. It was perhaps unsurprising that he looked slightly jaded in Madrid last week. Looking at the likes of Zverev and Rublev, it seems as if tennis has finally reached the point where the ‘Big Three’ are no longer immortal.
Marin Cilic has struggled for relevance over the past few seasons: he currently has a 2021 win-loss record of 9-8. But there have been some glimpses of the form that took Cilic to a Grand Slam title (an honour that still eludes the likes of Tsitsipas and Zverev). He reached the semi-finals of a decidedly weak Singapore Tennis Open earlier this year. But it at least gave him an inkling of that winning feeling. I was more impressed by his semi-final run in Estoril last week. It showed that he was finally getting some semblance of form on clay. Cilic registered a very solid victory over the in-form Alexander Bublik to open his account this week. But it’s completely fair to say that Cilic is not a clay-court lover. He has reached each Grand Slam’s final except Roland Garros (the best he could manage there was a pair of quarterfinals). He has also never played in a career clay-court final higher than 250 level. He is going to need to serve like a demon should he stand any chance of toppling the red-hot Tsitsipas.
Verdict: Tsitsipas in straight sets at 2/5 *forecast betting
This may be one of the more pointless head-to-head stats ever regurgitated on a tennis preview. Cilic leads Tsitsipas 1-0: that victory came all the way back in the first round of the 2017 Tokyo Open. Let’s be real: this should be a cakewalk for Tsitsipas. Sure, you never really want to play has hardened a competitor as Cilic in your opening match. But Cilic is in middling form and this is his least favourite surface. Tsitsipas is in terrific form and this could just be his best surface (that’s a tough one to call though). Tsitsipas to win in straight sets at 2/5 (I know it’s not pretty).