Exclusive: No Mistaking The Rapid Rise of Reilly Opelka
The only problem? It's a photo of fellow American giant John Isner.
"The guy asks me how my foot was," says Opelka with a smile. "I was like, 'He's a big enough Isner fan to know that he has a broken foot, he's got a picture of him, but he's not a big enough Isner fan to know that we look nothing alike.'
"I thought it was really funny. So I had to follow through and sign the picture. I mixed it up, though, signing it ‘Jon’."
Such cases of mistaken identity may soon be a thing of the past. Opelka comes into this week's Citi Open, the ATP 500 tennis tournament in Washington, D.C., in the Top 50 of the ATP Rankings for the first time in his career... and with no points to defend through the US Open, where last year he fell in the first round of qualifying.
His new mark is 43 and he’s already one of the most-feared servers in the game. Leveraging his 6’ 11” frame, Opelka has fired a tour-best 653 aces this season at an average of 21 a match. He is fourth on the list of most service games won (90.3%) and also fourth for most first-serve points won (81%).
But Opelka is far from one dimensional. His court coverage for a man his size is excellent, his forehand return from the deuce court is capable of producing searing winners at big moments and he can dig in for a fight on the baseline when circumstances require.
“He’s probably a little ahead of schedule,” Opelka’s coach of 19 months, Jay Berger, says of his progress. "Getting stronger in the body is going to be a big part of the next stage of his development.
“He’s got great hands. He’s a really good ball striker and people underestimate his athleticism and speed. His forward movement is incredible for someone of his size."
That’s not by accident. Although Opelka says that his height has never diminished his athleticism, he doesn’t take it for granted. He does a lot of footwork drills involving ladders and beach workouts and recently began working with a device using flashing lights to improve explosive movement and reaction times.
With a 17-14 record in 2019, which includes his first title at the New York Open, it’s noteworthy that Opelka played just four tour-level matches last season for a modest 2-2 record. Despite a mid-season battle with mono, his 12-month rise up the rankings from 229 to 99 at the end of 2018 was built at the ATP Challenger Tour, where he won three titles from five finals, including back-to-back crowns in Knoxville and Champaign to end his year.
"It was part of the plan,” the Michigan native says. “Last year I wanted to play on the Challenger Tour and try to play and win as many matches as I could and learn a lot.
"I've always been confident and believed in myself that I could get to where I wanted to be. I've put in a lot of hard work and I’ve been patient."
A side benefit of playing most of 2018 at the Challenger level is that competitors who haven’t seen much of him on the ATP Tour are still figuring out what game plan to deploy when they meet Opelka.
"The first time I play guys I think they almost underestimate my speed and ability from the baseline,” he says. “I play aggressively and make plenty of unforced errors, but when I need to stay in the point by scrapping and running balls down, I have no trouble doing that.
"I think a lot of guys are surprised by that and it's won me a lot of matches this year because guys haven't played me the right way. They've made balls thinking I would beat myself. I have a good record against those type of players."
One player who knows Opelka better than most is the 6' 10" Isner, who has gone 0-3 against his young rival in 2019 meetings despite winning more points in two of those three matches. In total this year they have played 10 sets, all of which have gone to tie-breaks.
Last week in Atlanta, in a match featuring a combined 64 aces, Opelka edged Isner 7-6(2), 6-7(5), 7-6(5) after saving three break points deep in the decider. Earlier in the match he dug himself out of trouble on serve with some hyper-aggressive groundstroke winners in big moments.
"Sometimes I'll step off the gas pedal if there is a time I need to make some balls, but my go-to instinct is to be aggressive," Opelka says. "At big moments in a match it's not too hard for me to do that, because it's part of my game.
"When you look at the great players, at the big moments in matches, they play their brand of tennis."
Despite the similarities with Isner and the respect he has for his countryman, Opelka did not fashion his game on the 2018 Miami Open champion, or anyone for that matter.
"When I was young I looked up to Roddick and Blake and I loved Ferrer, but I didn't model my game on anyone. I have a ton of respect for Isner and I still look up to John. He's an unbelievable guy and a great competitor.”
Opelka attributes much of his success to the roles played by Berger, the former Top 10 American player, and his day-to-day travelling coach Jean-Yves Aubone. “JY is terrific to have on the road with me and Jay has been an unbelievable coach and mentor. I was 225 in the world when we started and he's always believed in me. When we started I was kind of in a slump and lacking belief in myself.”
Berger is similarly complimentary about his charge. “He comes from a great family, he’s been raised the right way. Combine that with great mentoring from Tom Gullikson, Brian Gottfried, Michael Sell and Diego Moyano and you can see why he’s a really, really good kid.
“He’s extremely coachable. He brings different topics to the table, he’s very interested in developing into the best player he can be.”
For a man who serves from the heavens, the sky is the limit.