The clay court tennis on the 2016 ATP World Tour moves to Romania and Spain in week 16, with the BRD Nastase Tiriac Trophy and Barcelona Open our two tournaments this week.
I said yesterday that Rafael Nadal would go close to covering the -6.5 games against Gael Monfils in the Monte-Carlo final, suggesting: “one dominant set from Rafa quite likely here,” and it was all just a bit late in the end.
Had Nadal served out the opener for 6-3 we may well have been in business with that ‘long shot, with Monfils always likely to find either his body or brain hit the wall.
‘Sure thing’ backers collected on Nadal though and now we head to Bucharest and Barcelona for our fix of clay court tennis in week 16.
Conditions in the ATP 500 Barcelona Open are usually on the quicker side for a clay event, but of course that will depend on the weather, and last year here we saw six winning underdogs in round one from 16 matches, with Andrey Rublev over Fernando Verdasco and Victor Estrella over Dominic Thiem the biggest prices.
Mikhail Kukushkin vs Victor Estrella Burgos
And I’m going to take a chance on Estrella again in this early 10:00 UK time start in Barcelona, with the Dominican veteran one of those players for whom current form doesn’t mean much – if he fancies it he fancies it.
Evidence of that came in his win in Quito, having arrived at that event with no sort of form and he went on and retained his title as a 33-1 chance (happily for me).
And here in Barcelona last year he clearly enjoyed the conditions, with wins over Thiem and Marin Cilic at this tournament, saying: “The court is great and fast, I feel very comfortable playing here. A beautiful tournament in every aspect.”
That’s good enough for me to give him a decent chance today as underdog versus Mikhail Kukushkin whose clay form is poor and with only one clay match under his belt for a year.
That came in a loss in qualies in Monte-Carlo last week to French veteran Stephane Robert and Estrella could make it two losses in a week or so to the 35 and over brigade.
Kuku has lost eight of his last 10 matches on clay and he even managed somehow to get thrashed in straight sets by Dudi Sela at the French Open last year, which is some going.
The Kazakh hasn’t won back-to-back matches at any main level clay event since Nice in 2012 and he hasn’t beaten a top-70 ranked opponent here in Barcelona since 2008.
In all Kukushkin is 9-22 versus top-70 opposition on clay and he looks a sketchy favourite today in these circumstances.
You never really know what you’re going to get from Estrella, but I think he’s worth risking as a 2.23 chance in this one, having also beaten Kukushkin in their most recent clay encounter.
Others I quite like include Radek Stepanek to pile on the misery as underdog against Santi Giraldo, who managed to lose to Filip Krajinovic in straight sets last week and is really struggling of late.
Hyeon Chung vs Malek Jaziri
There are a few clay-avoiders on the card for Monday and one such is Jaziri, who has played a sum total of eight matches on the ATP World Tour and Grand Slams on this surface.
Generally he turns up at the French Open for what this year will be a tidy $33,778 for round one losers and he is forced into playing on the dirt sometimes in Davis Cup, but he hasn’t set foot on clay since Paris last year.
Jaziri has never beaten an opponent ranked above 98 in the world at main level on this surface and his six career wins have come versus opposition ranked as follows: 603, 148, 450, 98, 550, and unranked.
Chung is very much learning the trade himself when it comes to playing on clay, but you’d expect his motivation levels to be much higher than Jaziri’s in this one and he did manage three matches on the Fast-Dry clay of Houston a fortnight ago.
Given Jaziri’s record on this surface Chung should be easily capable of a win here and he gets the nod as a ‘sure thing’ for Monday.
Facundo Bagnis vs Evgeny Donskoy
Another early match I’m afraid, but it’s one that should go the way of the in-form Bagnis, who also gets an opponent not keen on getting his shoes covered in red dirt.
Donskoy has played only 12 matches at main level on clay and he’s lost 11 of those, so his chances against a gnarly clay courter like Bagnis look pretty slim today based on that.
The Russian hasn’t really got the patience for this surface and was comfortably beaten by Pablo Carreno Busta last time out in Marrakech.
Bagnis played well himself at that tournament, reaching the quarter finals before losing as favourite to the wily old dog Albert Montanes (more on him to come) in that last eight clash.
The Argentine has won 28 of his 35 matches this season – all on clay – and although 20 of his matches have been at Challenger level (won 18) he’s beaten Joao Sousa and Paul-Henri Mathieu in recent times.
Donksoy has won only two of his last 10 matches at any level on clay against lefties such as Bagnis and he’s never beaten a lefty as highly ranked as the Argentine on this surface.
Ten of the 15 completed round one matches in Barcelona were straight sets win last year and the 2.20 on Bagnis 2-0 can be combined with Montanes -2.5 games to beat Roberto Carballes Baena to make a 4.0 ‘long shot’.
Monty is at the veteran stage of his career, but he knows his way round a clay court better than most, and at this home tournament the Barcelona resident has never lost to an opponent ranked outside the top-100 in six matches.
He’s covered the -2.5 games in all of those matches even though many went to three sets and he’ll have a spring in his step coming here after making the last four in Marrakech.
Carballes Baena must have a good agent with the amount of wild cards he gets and here in Barcelona he’s onto what will be his fifth wild card at the age of only 23.
He’s lost four of his five matches in Barcelona though and Monty beat him in their only completed prior encounter in Estoril two seasons ago.
Montanes hasn’t lost in round one here since Jeremy Chardy beat him in 2010 and he’ll need scraping off the court before going down in this one I feel. The 2-1 to Montanes would also make a decent long shot on its own at 4.10.
I also toyed with the idea of Jan-Lennard Struff to cause a shock against Alexander Zverev, with Struff seemingly coming back to a bit of form now and Zverev looking jaded in Monte-Carlo last week.
Sure thing: Back Chung to beat Jaziri at 1.34
Value bet: Back Estrella to beat Kukushkin at 2.23
Long shot: Back Bagnis 2-0 and Montanes -2.5 at 4.0