elcome to the dirt. For the next two months, every ATP and WTA event will be held on clay, along with roughly 90% of ATP Challengers. If you followed along and consumed my content during March I hope you did well, as it was a wonderful month, betting two tournaments I am extremely familiar with.
So please cut me some slack in the coming months, as clay-court handicapping has never been my forte. Perhaps it is the seemingly endless array of players who excel on clay, or the break-happy nature of the surface, but I find clay courts the most difficult surface to accurately predict, especially pre-match.
Perhaps it’s also because growing up, I hardly ever played on clay. In juniors, clay court tennis was pretty much limited to a handful of select events, as well as the Clay Court Nationals, which were held in Florida when I played. I never did well there. The JTCC in College Park, Maryland, where I trained for a while, had a few fantastic red-clay courts, but for the most part my clay experience is limited to the shitty green clay we see in Charleston, and the upcoming Sarasota, Tallahassee, and Savannah Challengers. Everything about green clay is awful, but there’s nothing worse than approaching the net and watching a mediocre passing shot sail by for a winner as you slip and slide, unable to push off and cover the net.
My stats don’t lie, I am far better at predicting outcomes on a slick surface. I think that is because I excelled on quick surfaces in my sub-par playing career. There is no where to hide on a quick court, and with good hand-eye coordination and a big serve, anything is possible. Clay court tennis compared to grass or indoor hard court is practically a different sport, and requires a completely different set of skills, none more important than the ability to slide into your shots.
But it’s also not my first rodeo, and I am hopeful this clay season will be a profitable one. There are certainly many handicappers out there who will have a superior clay-court season to mine, but I wanted to share some thoughts I have learned as I enter my fourth clay season betting tennis practically every day.
Lower the Stakes
As we see in the very beginning when players are rusty, and end of seasons when players are checked out, results during the first few weeks of a new surface are notoriously unpredictable. Just lower the stakes during the first few weeks while you figure out who looks good, and who you should fade.
Speaking of fades, anyone with a Spanish sounding last name over an American is worth a potential play. I am only 10% kidding. There is absolutely no way to replicate a lifetime of learning to play tennis on this surface. Players who grew up on clay have a monumental advantage over those who grew up on hardcourt.
Here are some Americans I would not necessarily fade on clay, though. Tommy Paul, Taylor Fritz (the way he’s hitting the ball right now works on any surface), Sebastian Korda (growing up at IMG he is far more used to clay, and boasts a clay-court title as well as a Roland Garros 4th round appearance, and Jack Sock (he always won clay-court nationals growing up and with his kick serve, forehand, and hand skills I would be careful fading him especially in the first set).
Just hedge your bets every time. Seriously. A risk-free watch is the best watch, and major comebacks are all too commonplace these days. With fewer aces and free points on serve, it will always be harder to serve out a match on clay than a quicker surface. Personally, I have been hedging set money lines on players down a break, because you can cover your initial investment with much less money. Then, once the set is over, you can simply hedge on the money line. Yes, I understand you eat into your profit, but what eats more profit? Watching a major collapse from a set and break up and then tilt-betting all of your money away.
Beware Large Game Spreads
One of my earliest mistakes betting clay-court tennis was to jump on a player who raced out to a 3-0 lead. I thought surely the player was going to win 6-0, 6-0. A 3-0 lead might seem like a lot, but it's not. I have lost more money than I care to mention hopping on a live -4.5 or -5.5 game spread on a player up 3-0. A 3-0 lead means practically nothing. If there’s a clear mis-price or mismatch? Go for it. But clay has taped lines, clumps of dirt, wet patches, dry patches, you name it. Oftentimes games are won and lost with a few bad bounces, and large game spreads have practically zero margin for error.
One of my favorite things to watch during clay season is how Americans react to a bad bounce vs clay-courters. Americans freak out, they cannot believe they lost a point due to a bad bounce, where seasoned clay-courters hardly bat an eye.
I like to stick to live underdogs and decently priced moneylines, as it’s always easier to hedge and bet the other side if need be. Once that 3-0 becomes 3-3, your game spread is almost surely fucked.
Do Your Homework
COVID threw a massive wrench in surface data, but after nearly two years of continuous play, the surface specific UTR and ELO ratings aren’t bad. Do not base your selection solely on surface data, but definitely check and make sure it at least somewhat agrees with your thesis. Other than that, have fun and hedge your bets!