This week’s focus was heavily set on PGA’s first major of the year with the Masters in Augusta. While preparations for that were underway, men’s tennis quietly shifted away from the hard court season and into clay. The red dirt is so different from hard court, with many nuances, quirks and overall just an added element of difficulty.
As I do like to wager ATP … a lot, here’s what you need to know to help you become more familiar to either follow or fade my bets.
Clay court can be a finicky surface because you have to use your body to slide either into the shot or behind the shot, making it a skill set all its own. Sliding on clay takes trust, experience and a high level of comfortability. Due to the unevenness of the surface as a match progresses, you get random ball bounces, incorrect calls from line judges (because hawk-eye is not used), and depending on weather conditions, a surface that can play really slow (lots of clay), or faster because wind has blown clay off the court. Everything can make betting clay matches tricky.
The year is starting out wonky with a lot of injuries. Most of which are from players that happen to excel on clay. These are the main players you need to know about.
“The King of Clay” and 21-time Grand Slam winner, Rafael Nadal owns this surface. Maybe “owns” is an understatement. You don’t have your own statue unless you’re doing something right.
Nadal holds a 464-43 (91.5 percent) win/loss record on clay, the most of any player of all time. The next best current player is World No. 1 Novak Djokovic with an 80.5 percent win/loss career record on clay.
But he’s injured. After a hot 20-0 start to the year, Nadal sustained an injury in the semifinals at Indian Wells against fellow countryman Carlos Alcaraz then ultimately lost to American Taylor Fritz in the final. Afterward, he announced he would be out four to six weeks with a stress fracture on his rib leaving his participation in the French Open a question mark, where he holds a record-leading 13 titles, with his last coming in 2020.
“Djoker” has played just three matches in 2022 due to his vaccination status. According to his social media, he’s currently practicing in Monte Carlo in what looks like he’s gearing up for the ATP 1000 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters next week. Djokovic may have a 35-12 record that includes two titles in Monaco, but how much of match shape could he be four months into the year having played just three matches and losing one of them.
Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka
Of the current players, I would consider Thiem to be the best clay court player outside of Nadal and Djokovic. Unfortunately, he has been in and out of injury since the 2021 Australian Open. Same goes for Wawrinka. Both made an attempt to come back to the courts in the Marbella Challenger last week but both lost in straight sets. Assuming either can stay healthy, it will still take time to get back to form.
Last year was looking like his year after back-to-back final appearances winning in Serbia and following that up with a final loss to Alexander Zverev in Madrid. He then lost in a competitive quarterfinal matchup to Djokovic at Roland Garros, made a second round of back-to-back final appearances on grass, winning Belgrade and losing (again) to Djokovic in the Wimbledon final and then again in the US Open quarterfinal. Losing to World No. 1s are good losses but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy this year. After losing to Nadal in the Australian Open semifinal, Berrettini has played in six matches, losing three before announcing he’d be out a few weeks after having surgery on his hand.
The current World No. 2 has voiced his frustrations with clay. Perhaps you’ve seen GIFs of his annoyance with the red dirt. Well, he should miss the entire clay season after announcing he would be out one or two months after having a hernia procedure.
Some of the best players on clay are injured or have question marks. Who does that leave to contend this season?
Current World No. 5 has a 60-21 win/loss record on this surface including seven ATP titles, three of which were on clay, two from 2021. One of those titles was the 2021 Monte-Carlo Masters. He definitely has the skill set but where he lacks is the mind.
Ruud is one of two players that will have my interest this season. Nadal, Djokovic and Thiem, I’d rank Ruud right there as someone who is great on clay and his record definitely reflects that, at least at lower level events. He is 78-30 on clay and has seven ATP titles to his name, six won on clay, four won in 2021, all six titles at the ATP 250 level. Ruud dominates against lower-ranked opponents but currently has a 5-15 record against top 10 players.
Just how good is Ruud? Since 2020, he has played 54 best of three matches on clay. In that time, he has a 45-9 win/loss record winning 32 of those matches in straight sets. Keep him in mind this clay season. Can he contend in the bigger events against higher-ranked opponents? That’s his next hurdle to jump.
You may have seen me talk about the 18-year-old star (quite a bit) on Twitter. Sorry not sorry. The young Spaniard is the most exciting player in all of sports right now. Think about everything you like about The Big 3 (Federer, Djokovic and Nadal) and consider that Alcaraz is all that wrapped into one. I have not seen a complete player like him, probably ever.
What’s to love about Carlos Alcaraz
→ drop shot
→ kick serve
→ competitive maturity
→ TENNIS IQ!
He has it all. He’s 18! He has it all. pic.twitter.com/YxdhNJlscY
— Pamela Maldonado (@pamelam35) March 30, 2022
In his young career, he has just an 18-7 record on clay, but already has three titles, winning at each level on tour: ATP 250 Umag (clay), ATP 500 Rio (clay) and just recently, ATP Masters 1000 Miami (hard). The young bull is 7-6 against top 10 opponents but some came this year alone, defeating Berrettini in Rio, Cam Norrie at Indian Wells, and both Tsitsipas and Ruud in Miami. His one loss, in his last 16 matches was against Nadal.
Who to bet this clay-court season
In the futures markets, I am looking to back Ruud in lower ATP events (250/500) and as a straight-set winner and Alcaraz any and every which way I can. If you follow me on Twitter then you already have either a nice 16-1, 12-1 or 10-1 ticket on Alcaraz to win the French Open.
Why buying Carlos Alcaraz (early) to win the French Open is a good idea
— Pamela Maldonado (@pamelam35) March 21, 2022
Could it not happen? Sure, but with most players injured and him already having a 2-0 head-to-head record against Tsitsipas, it has legs. At the very least, we have value with his current odds down to +400.
These are the two players I trust entering clay season and the two players I’ll be backing frequently. April and May will be great months of ATP tennis.