by JAMES HENRY
ATLANTA – Almost everyone looks up to Reilly Opelka. The 18-year-old American tennis player is an astonishing 6 feet and 11 inches tall.
That’s an inch bigger than John Isner, the three-time defending champion of the BB&T Atlanta Open.
But Opelka said he, at least figuratively, still looks up to Isner, who has been at the top of the U.S. men’s tennis squad for the past four years.
“John has the best serve in the world. He takes the racket out of your hand,” Opelka said. “He’s one of the best competitors, which is the thing I admire most about him. The guy competes so hard.”
As a wild card, the young phenomenon earned his first ATP World Tour singles win in Atlanta. And he hasn’t stopped.
Opelka defeated 20-year-old American qualifier Christopher Eubanks in the first round and then upset South African Kevin Anderson, ranked 28th in the world. The teenager, conversely, is No. 837.
After defeating fellow American Donald Young, ranked 53rd, Opelka next faced his role model in the semifinals.
“I wouldn’t have said, ‘Yeah, I’ll make the semifinals here, sure,’ but I definitely believe in myself and have confidence in my level,” Opelka said, looking ahead to his match against Isner. “I’m pretty confident in myself, and I have a lot of belief in my game.”
With his success this week, Opelka’s standing will skyrocket, to around No. 387. Isner, who reached a career high of No. 9 in 2012, currently is ranked 17th.
Opelka said he admires how the big-serving 31-year-old is able to find a way to win, even when he’s not playing his best.
“That’s a true competitor,” the teen said. “Huge serve, huge forehand, great competitor – which are probably the three key components to being a top tennis player. He has all those things.”
The ATP World Tour launched a campaign in March to promote the next generation of men’s tennis professionals, those aged 21 and under and ranked among the top 200 players.
Opelka soon could be among them.
But he is not preoccupied with the future. Instead, he’s very much focused only on the present.
“No goals. No expectations,” he said. “Just win every point. Win every match. That’s the easiest way to do it.”
Opelka has been working, in particular, on his fitness, movement and return game, noting “those are important things for a big guy like me.”
He said he likes to play tennis on his own terms: “Play loose and swing free.”
“I know if serve well, hit my forehand well and return well, then I can hang with anyone,” he said.
Opelka has surprised even himself by how well he is moving on the fast hard court in Atlanta, his third ATP World Tour-level tournament.
“I’ve actually done a pretty good job on the movement aspect, taking the points that maybe I shouldn’t be taking on my opponents’ serve,” he said.
Disappointed with his returns at the start of the tournament, Opelka quickly worked to find a remedy.
“I was pretty flat on my feet, so I made an adjustment after that to be more explosive and look to get as many steps in after my split step to try to get to the ball quicker,” he said. “And that’s been my mindset on my return, to take my cuts.”
Opelka is close friends with Taylor Fritz, another 18-year-old American now making a significant impact. Ousted by Isner in the Atlanta quarterfinals, Fritz already is ranked 60th in the world.
“We separate the court and off-court really well,” Opelka said. “On court, things happen, you get fired up. Off court, we’re always cool.”
He recalled defeating #NextGen player Fritz, who married his wife, Raquel, last month, in the Boys' Singles semifinals of the 2015 Wimbledon Championships.
Opelka won 6-4, 7-6 (13), advancing to the final, where he ultimately claimed the championship title. But, he noted, Fritz had set points and perhaps should have gotten that second set.
“We walked off the court together, and we were joking around on the way back to the locker room,” he said. “That’s just the type of relationship we have. We can separate the two really well.”
Opelka began playing tennis when he was 6 years old. His favorite surface is clay, and his favorite tournament is the U.S. Open.
His idol growing up was Argentine Juan Martín del Potro, the trophy winner of the U.S. Open in 2009.
For the last two years, Opelka has been coached by Diego Moyano of the U.S Tennis Association.
He grew up under the tutelage of former ATP pro Tom Gullikson, the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team from 1994 to 1999, title winners in 1995 and runners-up in 1997, and coach of the 1996 U.S. men's Olympic tennis team in Atlanta, where Andre Agassi won the gold medal.
Photos by James Henry for Onthegotennis