The last big event before the French Open gets under way on Wednesday – our Andy Schooler has 12/1 and 40/1 selections for the Rome Masters.
Internazionali BNL d’Italia
- Rome, Italy (outdoor clay)
Already a winner in Barcelona and Madrid, Carlos Alcaraz looks to be in pole position as the tennis tour heads towards Roland Garros.
That’s the big prize during the ongoing claycourt swing and the Spaniard will be wary that he arguably peaked too soon last year when he lost in the quarter-finals in Paris having sparkled at the warm-up events.
The Spaniard is 7/5 to add another title to his collection in Rome and, to be fair, it’s easy to see why the layers want to keep him onside.
His only two defeats have arguably been brought about by physical issues – he was clearly struggling in losing to Cam Norrie in Rio and then had cramp problems against Jannik Sinner in Miami.
Alcaraz is a worthy favourite this week – or should I say fortnight as this is another of the extended Masters 1000 events which felt rather drawn-out in Madrid.
Still, at 7/5 I’m not straining at the leash to back him.
First of all, he’s never played this event before, withdrawing last year after back-to-back wins in Barcelona and Madrid.
It should also be noted he lost sets to Emil Ruusuvuori and Jan-Lennard Struff in Madrid, looking in plenty of trouble against the former.
He didn’t have to face a top-10 player that week and indeed only faced one – Stefanos Tsitsipas – in Barcelona.
Yes, he’s dealt with everyone put in front of him but there’s every chance the quality will rise here and in conditions he’s yet to experience.
This isn’t peak Rafael Nadal on clay, despite all the comparisons. I’ll swerve.
Plenty will be tempted by the 3/1 on offer about top seed Novak Djokovic, a man who will lose the world number one ranking to Alcaraz after this event (provided the Spaniard plays).
He’s a six-time winner in Rome and has reached eight of the last nine finals, but if ever the Serb looked worth taking on here, it’s this year.
He’s already been beaten by Lorenzo Musetti and Dusan Lajovic during the European clay swing and the latter defeat prompted him to withdraw from Madrid. No specific injury was ever cited but he has previously admitted his long-standing elbow problem remains an issue.
“My legs were slow and my footwork was torpid – many missed shots, totally without direction,” he grumbled after losing to Lajovic.
I don’t doubt Djokovic has the ability to turn things around quickly but circumstances suggest it’s unlikely and the clay doesn’t come as naturally to him as the other surfaces.
In my opinion, he has to be taken on.
Rune to upstage home favourite
So, if not backing either of the top two, where do we turn?
Let’s start with a look at the top half of the draw, the one featuring Djokovic and also the weaker-looking one.
Sinner is the bookies’ second choice to make the final here.
The home hope should have recovered fully from the illness which forced him to withdraw mid-tournament in Barcelona and then miss Madrid.
Prior to that, he had made the semis in Monte Carlo where conditions are similar to Rome but he’s yet to go beyond the last eight of his home event.
Long-term readers will know I’m a fan of Sinner’s game but I don’t believe there’s a great deal of juice in his price of 15/2.
HOLGER RUNE is actually seeded higher but is available at almost twice the price and he’s the man I prefer in this section of the draw.
The young Dane has already proved his claycourt form with a run to the final in Monte Carlo – where he beat Sinner along the way – and victory in Munich.
He lost a tight one against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in Madrid and while that came as a bit of a surprise, he should be more comfortable back down at sea level.
Some will be put off by Rune’s loss, or rather than manner of it, in Madrid.
He once again riled a crowd with his antics and that’s a potential concern for backers here, particularly given he could meet home favourite Sinner in the semis again.
Rune certainly managed to get the fans on his back against Fokina, although my view is he actually enjoys playing the villain, in a similar way to Daniil Medvedev.
That aspect isn’t enough to put me off and neither is the presence of Djokovic in Rune’s quarter.
The 20-year-old beat Djokovic in their last meeting in the Paris Masters at the back end of last season and given the Serb’s current form, I’d like Rune’s chances again were they to meet on this surface in the last eight.
Sadly the 14/1 has gone, but he gets the vote at 12s.
The bottom half looks more competitive with a host of players making my shortlist.
Stefanos Tsitsipas has played well here in the past and has to have a strong chance. He lost to Djokovic in last season’s final and was also edged out by the Serb in a classic quarter-final in 2021. The Greek was also a semi-finalist in 2019.
This year, he’s already been to the Barcelona final, losing to Alcaraz, whom he could face in the quarter-finals of this tournament.
Last time out he was beaten by Madrid surprise package Struff, the player this column frustratingly picked out for the previous tournament in Munich, citing his potential at altitude. If you backed him each-way in Madrid, well done!
The presence of Alcaraz is perhaps the most off-putting aspect, although there’s also the fact that Tsitsipas is likely to face Banja Luka champion – and Djokovic conqueror – Dusan Lajovic in his opening match. That looks awkward.
Lorenzo Musetti is also in this quarter and maybe he could go one better than in Barcelona when – carrying this column’s money – he lost in a three-set semi-final to Tsitsipas.
The Italian has been playing well on the clay and a loss to altitude specialist Yannick Hanfmann in Madrid can be forgiven.
At 50/1, he’ll have his backers.
Another at a big price in this half is Taylor Fritz.
The American’s form has been something of a surprise on the clay with semi-final appearance in Monte Carlo and Munich already on his record.
Madrid felt like an opportunity missed with three match points blown in defeat to Zhang Zhizhen. Again, followers on this column were on – and sadly this was the section of the draw which produced Struff as the shock finalist.
Still, Fritz should not be discounted here at 66/1 – Reilly Opelka showed in 2021 that a big serve is not always blunted by the Rome clay.
That said, I prefer to look elsewhere.
Rublev worth sticking with
Davidovich Fokina could make waves at 80/1.
His win over Rune in Madrid was followed only by a final-set tie-break loss to Borna Coric, a player who notoriously blows hot and cold. It also took Alcaraz to stop him in Barcelona – the scoreline of 7-6 6-4 showing how tight that contest was.
But it’s to ANDREY RUBLEV I’m actually turning.
Our 66/1 Monte Carlo winner again looks overpriced for this event, given what we’ve seen from him over the past month.
After claiming the biggest title of his career in Monaco, the Russian finished runner-up in Banja Luka, running out of steam after two solid weeks of tennis.
Again, I’m not too worried about his loss in Madrid which came at the hands of long-term friend Karen Khachanov.
The slower conditions here should suit him more and a 2-0 record against Fokina is encouraging in terms of their likely third-round meeting.
Fritz could follow but Rublev beat him en route to his Monte Carlo title.
Medvedev and Alex Zverev are potential quarter-final foes but while the latter’s strong Rome record and improving form is worth noting, he still looks shy of the top form he’ll need to challenge in this company.
It’s a tricky draw, no doubt, especially with Alcaraz potentially waiting in the semis, but if you are happy to play in this half, then Rublev looks the value call given what we’ve seen so far this clay season.
Posted at 1420 BST on 09/05/23
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