Australian Open Men's Singles Day One: Improving Humbert to get the better of Millman

The Australian Open begins on Monday morning at Melbourne Park, and returning to give his thoughts on the opening day's action is our tennis columnist, Dan Weston...

A few intangibles in advance of the opening day

We have action from the bottom half of the men's singles draw to get the 2020 edition of the Australian Open underway, although from the weather forecasts that I have looked at, it might be a stretch to suggest that we get to see the completion of all 32 matches, which get underway at midnight UK time and go through until about lunchtime.
Some rain looks likely, although with weather it's never easy to predict far in advance, and another intangible is the breathing difficulties which have beset players in qualifying which have stemmed from the devastating bushfires in Australia. Given the best of five set format in the men's competition, it is never easy to play long matches, and this could well exacerbate the effects of a long match for some players.
It's difficult, however, to identify this in advance and for specific players, so all we can really do at this stage is to treat each player on their relative merits, and there's some interesting spots on the opening day.

Sinner looking short-priced despite obvious potential

Heavy underdogs who I give a bit of a chance to include home player John-Patrick Smith, at 6.40 against the Argentinian clay-courter Guido Pella, while I also think Max Purcell, another Australian who is making his Grand Slam debut, looks big at 5.10 against fellow young prospect Jannik Sinner.
The Italian 18 year old, Sinner, is much more high profile and looks to be on the course for future top 10 status (and possibly beyond), but he's lost both his matches this season and his medium-term numbers don't give him as big an advantage as the market implies over Purcell, who qualified to get to this stage.

Raonic with plenty to prove

Some more illustrious names also look a little short in the markets, with Milos Raonic a dangerous proposition at 1.21 against a competent opponent in Radu Albot. Raonic has struggled with injuries for what seems like an age now, and lost against Corentin Moutet in his opener in the warm-up event in Doha. I think that the market has priced in Albot's struggles at the ATP Cup against decent-level opposition, but it's worth noting that Raonic is 2-5 (with one of those two wins in an exhibition event) since he retired against countryman Felix Auger-Aliassime in Montreal at the start of August.

Tsitsipas with potential game handicap problems

I also think that Stefanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini and also Roger Federer look a little short for their openers. Tsitsipas faces Salvatore Caruso who is more used to playing on clay, but the Italian's hard court numbers at Challenger level last year weren't a disaster, and he beat a few decent opponents. Tsitsipas doesn't tend to win sets by dominant margins - he broke opponents just over 16% in 2019 on hard courts, which puts him firmly in the big-server category - and it wouldn't surprise me if he failed to cover -9.5 games, which looks likely to be the final main market line.
Priced below 1.20 in Grand Slam events, Tsitsipas only won 6/30 sets by a 6-0 to 6-2 margin, and he's never covered -9.5 games in any of the eight Grand Slam matches priced in this region. In addition, in main tour matches, he's also generally won matches by relatively tight margins when an overwhelming favourite, winning by 5/6/5/6 games in best of three set matches (all were in straight sets).

Johnson could give Federer a tricky test

Berrettini is just 1.08 as he faces home wild card Andrew Harris, who is playing his first ever main tour match, while Federer looks conservatively priced at [1.05] against Johnson as well. The Swiss legend has gone into the tournament without a competitive match this year, while Johnson has been racking up wins in warm-up Challenger events, including a title in Bendigo. While the American, Johnson, has seen his ranking slip well outside the top 50, my view is thats he's definitely a top 50 hard courter and while a shock might be too much to expect for Johnson, I think he's likely to cover a similar game handicap line (+9.5 games) as Caruso.
However, there's also a couple of 'pick-em' matches which catch my attention. In the battle of two Challenger players, I think the market is giving Alejandro Davidovich Fokina's potential too much weighting for his match with the older journeyman, Norbert Gombos, who is underdog at 2.24. In Challengers on hard court last year, Gombos recorded better service numbers while Davidovich Fokina was better on return - overall there wasn't much between them.

Edmund should have too much for Lajovic

In addition, the Brit, Kyle Edmund, looks a bit of value even as favourite at 1.62 against Dusan Lajovic. I can almost hear the sighs here with Edmund enduring a poor run of results, but it's important to look at the underlying numbers here.
In the last six months on hard courts, Edmund is winning around just a third of his matches, but he's running at around 100% combined service/return points won in this period. He's gone 1-5 in tiebreaks during this period, and dramatically underperformed on break points - both areas which tend to be very variance-heavy - and against a player who is pretty limited in quicker conditions in Lajovic, I expect Edmund to get the win.

Improving Humbert value to continue progress

I also like Ugo Humbert at 1.88 against another home player in John Millman, but I'm a little concerned about how the rapidly improving Frenchman will fare after winning in Auckland on Saturday morning. If this was scheduled for Tuesday I'd be much happier about the value on him, but with the rain forecast to play havoc on the opening day it could well be played then in any case.
Quite simply, this is a numbers play with Humbert showing markedly better service numbers as well as similar return data to Millman, and also being on a dramatic upward curve in terms of improvement - I'm surprised the market has found it tough to split the duo.

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