At the beginning of this year, no one in the online sports betting world would have thought that this was the year that Rafa Nadal would flirt with a calendar slam.
No professional tennis player has completed the calendar slam – winning all four major tennis tournaments in a single year – since Steffi Graf in 1988.
On the men’s side, it’s even rarer. You’ve got to go all the way back to Rod Laver in 1969.
Yet Nadal, at 36 years old, is as close as he’s ever been. At no point in his illustrious professional tennis career has he ever started the year by winning the Australian Open and the French Open.
And as you may know, this is a man who has won a lot of French Open trophies.
Most tennis betting experts see Nadal as an aging star who’s on the decline. Before this year’s victory in Melbourne, he hadn’t won a major title in 16 months since the rescheduled 2020 French Open – one of the most prolonged droughts of his entire career.
He took advantage of Novak Djokovic’s absence in Australia and mounted an epic comeback win over Daniil Medvedev.
He defied virtually every online sportsbook, which priced him as an underdog to Djokovic at Roland Garros just a few weeks ago.
Now, he has the chance to win the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon in the same calendar year – just as Djokovic did last year – setting up a high-stakes, historically significant US Open.
The problem is that the Wimbledon grass is easily Nadal’s worst surface. Nadal’s two Wimbledon championships came far earlier in his career when he was younger and much more athletically gifted. He hasn’t advanced to the Wimbledon Championships’ final round in 11 years.
Nadal needs three things to win at Wimbledon this year.
The first is a manageable path through the men’s draw. He needs strong, unseeded grass players to play away from him in the middle part of the bracket. For the most part, it looks like Nadal has gotten this.
The second thing Nadal needs is some middle-class carnage. As the third and fourth rounds approach, Nadal needs many of the strong, top-15 caliber players to be upset by unseeded players or withdraw for other reasons.
Even though we’re only through one round, Nadal has already had incredible luck in this area. Marin Cilic, one of the popular sleepers to come out of Nadal’s quarter of the bracket, was forced to withdraw before the first round because of a positive COVID-19 test.
Pre-tournament favorite Matteo Berrettini, who closed with better championship odds than Nadal, has withdrawn for the same reason. (I wrote more about this here.)
Felix Auger-Aliassime, another popular futures pick in the Wimbledon odds market, was upset in the first round by American Maxime Cressy, 7-6, 4-6, 6-7, 6-7.
No. 24 seed Holger Rune, fresh off a hot clay season, was also beaten in the first round.
The third and final thing that Nadal needs is perhaps the toughest ask. He needs someone from the top half of the bracket to take out Djokovic.
Djokovic has not shown the same top form this year in previous ATP seasons, but he’s still not a good matchup for Nadal on grass. He’s rangier, more powerful and a far better grass player.
He’ll also be looking for revenge after that recent French Open quarterfinal loss to Nadal. And he’ll likely relish the chance to steal Nadal’s opportunity at a calendar slam, just as Medvedev stole it from him last fall.
If Nadal reaches a championship showdown with Djokovic, Wimbledon will have been a fun ride, but it will almost surely end with a 21st major championship for Djokovic.
If, on the other hand, Djokovic plays another poor match and a hungry up-and-comer can take him out, he’ll have done Nadal a huge service.
As I mentioned earlier this week, I bet on Andy Murray to win Djokovic’s quarter at 12-to-1 odds.
Whether or not Murray (or anyone else) can take out Djokovic before the Wimbledon final is now one of the major remaining storylines of the tournament.
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