© Alex Smith/New York Open

On Friday, Reilly Opelka will try to reach his second ATP Tour semi-final.

Opelka: A Giant With Room To Grow

American captures his first ATP Tour title at the New York Open

Reilly Opelka, at 6’11”, is the tallest player on the ATP Tour alongside Ivo Karlovic. But the American still has plenty of room to grow, and that’s a good thing for the 21-year-old.

That's pretty impressive considering on Sunday he won the title at the New York Open, hoisting his first ATP Tour trophy. Opelka finished the week with 156 aces, including 43 in each of his final two matches of the tournament. The record for the most aces in a best-of-three-set match is 45 (Ivo Karlovic).

But Opelka is confident he can further improve his game. In his second-round win against Denis Istomin, Opelka struck 32 aces through two sets and one service game in the third set before the player from Uzbekistan retired due to a leg strain. If he kept that pace up, he would have matched Karlovic’s record with 45. But Opelka wasn’t thrilled with his performance in that clash.

“I was pretty disappointed with how I played from the baseline today,” Opelka said.

In the first set against Istomin, Opelka won just two of 34 return points. The American said he was cutting short his forehand follow-through and was unable to stay in rallies because of it. That may not seem optimal. But nevertheless, Opelka used his strong serving to hang around, force a decider and advance.

“It’s a good feeling. It’s part of my game. I mean, part of [being] anyone that relies so much on their serve, you can kind of get away with that. Obviously I don’t want to. It’s just not as fun,” Opelka said. “I didn’t even have a sniff on his serve until late in the second set. So from my standpoint, it’s just like I’m just focusing on my serve and I’m going out there and not making a return, not putting any pressure on him. It’s kind of disappointing and it takes some of the excitement out. But at the same time, there’s a positive to it.”

If nothing else, that shows there is room to improve. The 2016 Atlanta semi-finalist says for the past couple of years he has been working especially hard on his forehand and his service return. And while he isn’t completely satisfied with his progress, Opelka cracked the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings for the first time on 19 November 2018 and is currently at a career-high of World No. 89. He will climb to No. 56 on Monday with his victory.

"Reilly could be a little negative at times with some of the things he says, but he’s a dangerous guy to play. Nobody likes to play Reilly or John [Isner] or Kevin [Anderson] and these guys who serve like that,” said 10-time ATP Tour titlist Sam Querrey, who is also into the New York quarter-finals. “Reilly kind of goes for broke sometimes and is a scary and dangerous guy to play.

“He seems to be getting into a little bit of a rhythm now with his third quarter-final and the more he keeps winning these matches and putting himself in these situations, his [ATP] Ranking is just going to climb higher and higher and he’s going to be in more main draws of these tournaments. His ceiling’s high. When you serve like that and you’re aggressive as he is, he can beat anyone. Novak doesn’t want to play him right now.”

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But for the moment, Opelka is taking it one step at a time. The Florida resident has only played 32 tour-level matches, and he is trying to gain more experience on the ATP Tour. He has won four ATP Challenger Tour titles.

“I want to stay in the Top 100, I want to focus on staying here and having more opportunities at this level because even around 100, you still have to play a good amount on the [ATP Challenger] Tour,” Opelka said. “If I could stay more and have more opportunities on the tour-level, that’s kind of where I want to go.”

While Opelka has time to continue honing his strokes, and he knows that is important, that is not what he believes is the key to spending more time at tour-level.

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“I think it’s just being consistent: consistently healthy, consistent emotionally every single week,” Opelka said. “Having a good mindset and being physically able to play and compete is the biggest part.“

If anyone knows what Opelka is going through right now, it’s Isner, whom Opelka defeated in the semi-finals in New York. While Isner competed at the University of Georgia and Opelka opted to turn professional rather than go to college, the reigning Miami winner and 2018 Nitto ATP Finals qualifier has been in his younger compatriot’s shoes. And as 33-year-old Isner proved last season, there is always time to grow.

“I just think he’s definitely maturing. I think that’s the most important thing. We obviously know what he brings to the table… for a big guy he moves well. Of course he serves extremely well on top of that,” Isner said. “Just like me, he’s a guy that’s going to be in a lot of matches even if he’s really not playing so great, because of his serve. He’s very young… He’s got a lot more years to develop down the road. He’s going to be a force, in my opinion, going forward for a pretty long time.”

Editor's Note: This story was originally published on 14 February, and has been updated to reflect more recent results.

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