Challenger Q&A: Opelka Caps Top 100 Climb With Champaign Crown
Finishing the season inside the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings is a special achievement for those competing on the ATP Challenger Tour. It marks the culmination of a year of hard work and often signals a turning point in a player's career.
But few Top 100 ascents are as dramatic as this. Reilly Opelka opened the month of September at No. 173, with a mountain to climb to crack the century mark. Having struggled with a bout of mononucleosis over the U.S. summer, the 21-year-old needed to find his form in a hurry. What resulted will go down as one of the most memorable storylines of the Challenger season.
Opelka had claimed just 17 match wins during the year, as he stepped on the hard courts of windy Chicago in the first week of September. He would double that total in the coming months, capping his Top 100 ascent with a stunning 17-4 stretch. It all kicked off with back-to-back finals in Chicago and Cary and culminated with consecutive titles in Knoxville and Champaign. That's four final appearances in just six tournaments following the US Open.
On Saturday, Opelka blasted to a career-high No. 98 in the ATP Rankings behind a 7-6(6), 6-3 win over Ryan Shane in the final of the JSM Challenger of Champaign-Urbana. He needed to sweep both indoor events in Knoxville and Champaign to conclude his season and he did just that, reeling off nine straight matches with aplomb. Playing with poise and maturity from the baseline, the 6'11" American did not only rely on his seismic serve. Armed with a more consistent and patient ground game, coaches Jay Berger and Jean-Yves Aubone have guided their young charge to new heights.
Opelka Fast Facts
- Concludes the season in second place among Challenger win-loss percentage leaders (.756), behind only Vasek Pospisil (.784).
- One of six players to win at least three titles in 2018, joining Guido Andreozzi (4), Pablo Andujar (3), Hugo Dellien (3), Christian Garin (3) and Jordan Thompson (3).
- First American to win three titles in a single season since 2014 (Bradley Klahn and Sam Querrey).
- Joins Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz as Americans aged 21 & under to feature in the year-end Top 100.
After winning in Champaign, Opelka spoke to broadcaster Mike Cation...
You said last week that Top 100 didn't really matter to you, because of the long-term goals. That being said, now you're there and you've guaranteed yourself Australian Open main draw. That has to mean something at this point.
Yeah, being in the main draw of Australia is huge. It allows me to go there and play two tournaments before the Australian Open. Usually I'll have to play qualies the week before and it's a long trip over there just for that. You might just play one match and then qualifying, which is brutal. From that standpoint, it's huge. Like I said last week, Top 100 is not something I'm celebrating, but yes, I'm stoked to be there.
Two straight titles to get there is pretty hard to do. In your first couple matches in Champaign, your game wasn't entirely there. What turned on as the week progressed?
I was focused, but I just played another guy [Lloyd Glasspool] with a big serve. And then [Kaichi] Uchida was playing insane in the second round. The tough moments in the tournament were early on and then in the quarter-finals it was just a great match-up for me. On Friday, it was extremely physical [against Tommy Paul], so I wasn't 100 per cent confident in my body today. But I knew that playing Ryan, he would be serving big and looking to end points quick. I didn't have to rely on moving and being physical to win the match.
Tommy Paul is a very close friend of yours. How awkward was it to play him for the first time as pros, in the semi-finals?
I didn't feel it was awkward, actually. We know each other so well and have practised a ton together. We know each other's games, but it did take me a while to get going in that match. I started slow. Once that happened, we played great tennis. From 2-all in the second set until the end of the match, it was high quality. I didn't serve my best, so I won a lot of points from the baseline and was just scrapping. We had a 40-ball rally on the first match point. I had to win in a different way from how I'm used to winning.
✅ Back-to-back #ATPChallenger titles— ATP Challenger Tour (@ATPChallenger) November 17, 2018
✅ Top 100 debut
✅ First 🇺🇸 to lift three 🏆 in a single season since Bradley Klahn in 2014@ReillyOpelka is the champion in Champaign, capping his 2018 campaign in dominant fashion. pic.twitter.com/ddnNK3J6Zj
It was completely different in the final against Ryan. He's playing some incredible tennis this week and showing everyone what he's capable of, reaching his first final. What did you see from him and how did you combat that?
I think he's just disrupted a lot of guys. He was playing much more consistent with the same aggression. That's huge. In baseline points, I didn't feel comfortable at all. I'd hit a huge shot and he responded right back. Granted, he missed some big shots that he shouldn't have, including that break point that gave me the first break. Maybe that's the downside to his style, where you can't control it in the big points. But that's what won me the match today.
You played pretty well under pressure the past two weeks. How do you bring that into next year? What will you do with a six-week off-season in front of you?
I actually don't think it's something I can bring into next year. I have six weeks off and I'll take a short break and then it's five weeks of getting better. We looked at a lot of stats and watched a lot of my matches last year. We'll do the same this year. Putting this year behind us what we need to do and we'll look at what flaws need to be fixed for next year.
If you take out the struggles with mono and you look at the year as a whole, what you've done is pretty important. Just in terms of your growth and your development. You are at the point where you can start playing more and more ATP events so you are not at the Challenger level. How important is that for you in 2019?
It's huge. I hope I can make a nice transition on the ATP World Tour. I'm not saying I will or it will be easy, but it's definitely not my last Challenger. I have the opportunity to go to Australia and train with a couple tour events and prepare for the Aussie Open. I've never had that chance before.
Last week you said you weren't going to celebrate your title in Knoxville, but now you don't have anything to worry about with a complete week off coming up. How are you going to celebrate with your team, family and friends?
My favourite restaurant is in Chicago. It's called Boka. I'm going to try to take my talents there and probably won't be able to walk out because I'll be eating so much. I went there every night with Michael Mmoh during the Chicago Challenger. He'll also confirm that it's the best restaurant we've been to. It's on the agenda.