2018 French Open Preview: Can Novak Djokovic be Trusted?

  • Rafael Nadal is the strong  favorite to win at his summer home, Roland Garros
  • Is he worth the absurdly short odds?
  • And what is going on with Novak Djokovic? Generally and specifically?

This might surprise you, but Rafael Nadal is currently the betting favorite to win the French Open, which starts on May 21st and stretches into early June. Nadal is currently listed at -225, which suggests the Mallorcan has a 69% chance of winning the tournament.

This is before we have a draw, before we know who’s playing who in what round, and before the lead-up tournaments have been completed. It’s also not totally insane.

Is -225 too short for Nadal?

The scary thing is that an honest accounting of Nadal’s chances would leave you with a number not far from his current odds. His string of 50 consecutive sets won on clay was snapped by Dominic Thiem in Madrid, and in a match any spectator would describe as bizarre.

Lengthy exchanges of infuriating moonballs followed by absurdly aggressive groundstrokes undid Nadal, somehow, but don’t assume that’ll be the case in the French Open. Dominic Thiem has never beaten Nadal there, and honestly it doesn’t seem like anyone has.

Rafael Nadal would have roughly a 30% chance of victory in a seven-round tournament against seven different Dominic Thiems

When you just look at stats like clay-court Elo, which gives you a probabilty of victory based on past head-to-head results, Rafael Nadal would have roughly a 30% chance of victory in a seven-round tournament against seven different Dominic Thiems.

Considering that his odds of victory in the early rounds will be approach 95%, you can see how the sportsbooks came up with these odds.

The only player other than Thiem with a realistic prospect of beating Nadal at Roland Garros is Novak Djokovic. That presents a huge problem, because evaluating Novak Djokovic in 2018 involves accounting for a bunch of variables we can’t honestly quantify. More on that later.

Is Dominic Thiem a real threat?

Of course! He’s made the semi-final two years in a row and just got done beating a very in-form Nadal in Madrid. On his best day, he can beat anyone in the world on clay, and can certainly win the French Open.

Dominic Thiem
You’d think that Dominic Thiem’s power-hitting game would be best suited to grass, but he’s actually a true clay-court specialist. (Photo credit: Gregg Gorman CC License)

He is still very young and quite green, so keep an eye on his odds. If they dip below +500 or so, they’ll be a little short. Another young player to look at is Alexander Zverev at +1600, although there you’re waiting for that Big Bird-looking buffoon to make his way though five sets.

Thiem’s odds currently carry an implied probability of about 15%. Considering that his chances of beating Nadal are calculated to be roughly similar to that number, his odds aren’t giving you any value on the other six matches he’ll have to play.

So what about Novak Djokovic?

Novak Djokovic’s Background Weirdness

For the last couple years, Novak has been floating between “either innocent eccentricity” and “damaging delusion.” His relationship with Pepe Imaz has birthed much in the way of rumours and little in the way tennis success.

You’ll see that Novak has lost an awful lot of weight, hear a story about Imaz resting a slice of bread on his stomach and having him consider its unbearable weight, and then realize that wow, Novak has only won three tournaments since completing the Nole Slam at the 2016 French Open.

I knew he was bad, I didn’t know he was that bad.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong or even new about a top tennis player getting into some wacky psycho-babble in the later stages of their career. Rafael Nadal arranges his water bottles in a pattern that aligns with the solstice and matches the layout of the Great Pyramids. Ivan Lendl used to tear his eyebrows clean off between points, only to have them grow back in time for the next point.

Even Djokovic rose to prominence bouncing the ball pre-serve in a way that spelled out the date and circumstances of his opponent’s death in Morse code.

Even Djokovic rose to prominence bouncing the ball pre-serve in a way that spelled out the date and circumstances of his opponent’s death in Morse code. Top tennis players have always been weird, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

What is troubling is the way Djokovic’s relationship with Imaz coincides with the least successful period of his career. It’s not encouraging, to say the least, that the relationship is still going strong heading into the French Open.

Novak Djokovic’s Specific Elbow Weirdness

It’s impossible to talk about the elbow thing without first establishing all of Djokovic’s weird eccentricities. He has a Tom Brady-esque alternative approach to health and fitness, and a Tom Brady-esque approach to telling the media about his health and fitness, so there just isn’t much to go on.

Everything comes through several layers of obfuscation and secrecy, so we don’t have that much firm ground to stand on.

Djokovic has confirmed that he had a “small medical intervention” in February, and spoke non-specifically about the non-specific injury he’s been carrying around for two years. That brings us to the edge of what we actually know about Djokovic’s health/elbow/wrist/whatever.

Rumours abound, and you can find them pointing in both directions. Some believe that the “small medical intervention” wasn’t quite so small, and that Djokovic had a much larger operation that he’s hiding from the world.

There’s also a considerable amount of scuttlebutt that there was never an elbow surgery at all, and that Djokovic needed time off for personal reasons but couldn’t just abandon the tour without a compelling reason.

What Does This Mean for Roland Garros Bettors?

The result is that bettors have no real way to evaluate Djokovic’s health and fitness. Unless you know Djokovic personally, you have no idea what’s going on with his arm/personal life, and even if you are within his inner circle you’re probably in trouble.

It also means that any odds shorter than +1000 are way to short for Djokovic, and even at +1000 the Serbian joker is probably a bad bet. That sounds crazy to say about the player who achieved the highest, most complete form of tennis ever played.

It is, of course, entirely possible that Djokovic returns to form, or something happens to Rafael Nadal, or some combination of these events conspires to put the trophy in Nole’s hands. I wouldn’t bet on it, however, and certainly not at these odds.

Geoff Johnson

MTS co-founder Geoff Johnson is a lifelong Mets fan, something he can't do anything about. He has a great track record when it comes to wagering on baseball – largely because he's more than willing to bet against the Mets. His career profits are impressive, but not quite as good as his handsome friend Frank Lorenzo. He wishes he hadn't let Frank write his profile.