Standing above the rest in New York is no easy task … even if you stand at 6’11”.
But that is just what Reilly Opelka did over the course of a week at NYCB LIVE, home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale. The 21-year-old American captured the second-ever New York Open singles title with a masterful run on Long Island and raised the first ATP Tour level championship trophy of his young career in the process.
“This is definitely my biggest title yet, the one I’m most proud of for sure,” said Opelka. “It’s been a lot of years coming ... It’s been a million people along the way, so many different people have helped me, and now I want to go a lot further than this.”
His win in the finals capped off a fantastic week of tennis, winning five matches in six days that saw him unleash an unmerciful amount of aces on the competition. In all, Opelka hit 156 aces during his week on Long Island, including 86 combined in the semifinals and finals, an even 43 each in both matches.
Opelka credits his success with his serve during the tournament on a key adjustment he made in the early rounds after he dropped the opening set to France’s Adrian Mannarino in the first round.
“First of all, it was in my match with Mannarino … my first serve percentage was 48 percent in the first set. I lost 6-2 and that number is way too low; I should be around 70 percent,” Opelka said, impressively remembering his numbers from a match five days prior. “So I made an adjustment first with my toss on my serve by moving it further in front, and I think served 70 percent or higher every single set after that. So that was one, and then after my match with [Denis] Istomin, I wasn’t happy with my return serve and my forehand, and I made some adjustments there and started paying more attention to my folly through, and that helped my forehand a lot. As the week went on, I progressed a lot with my tennis, and by keeping myself in those matches when I wasn’t playing well it gave me the opportunity to fix it.”
That sentiment is what Opelka will take away from his week in New York. With his height, he has always been known as a huge server, and rightfully so, especially when you see the numbers, but it was his ability to play an all-around game and make adjustments that led to his success.
John Isner, the player with whom Opelka is most often compared to because of their stature and style of play, has seen that type of progression up close in recent months. Opelka scored one of the signature wins of his career earlier this year in Melbourne, Australia, when he outdueled Isner, 7-6(4), 7-6(6), 6-7(4), 7-6(5), in the type of score line you would expect from these two.
“It’s been helpful watching him, but at the same time, we’re different,” Opelka said of trying to emulate the success of Isner. “There are similarities, but the ball comes back a lot more for me than it will for him. At least for now.”
And just a few weeks later, Opelka would have another opportunity to see the ball coming back from Isner. After defeating Mannarino, Istomin and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez at the New York Open, Opelka faced off against Isner in the semifinals.
With a spot in the finals on the line, Opelka and Isner played a thrilling match that spanned more than two-and-a-half hours. Once again, Opelka came out on top, this time with a 6-7(8), 7-6(14), 7-6(4) victory.
“He’s definitely maturing,” said Isner of Opelka. “Of course he serves extremely well, but for a big guy, he moves well too. Just like me, he’s going to be in a lot of matches, even if he’s not playing great, because of his huge serve. He’s going to be a force for a long time in this sport.”
With the way that Opelka and Isner both serve, matches between them come down to just a couple points here and there. And in key points in both the second and third set tie-breakers, Opelka was able to get himself into points on Isner’s serve with his length and movement, which provide to be the difference.
“They won’t always turn that way for me,” said Opelka. “Look at John [Isner]—with a match point on serve. He’s a very clutch player I would say, so I think just with our styles there’s going to be moments where it goes my way and I play clutch in those moments, and then obviously there will be instances where it doesn’t.”
His success in those tiebreakers would foreshadow and play a decisive role his finals match against 23-year-old Canadian Brayden Schnur. After rolling through the opening set in just 18 minutes, Opelka had multiple chances to break Schnur’s serve in the second set, but was unable to, resulting in a tiebreaker. There, Opelka held two match points, but Schnur saved both as Opelka double-faulted on the second one.
That allowed Schnur the opening to take the set and force the New York Open finals into a third set. It seemed inevitable that this set would head into a tiebreaker, so few were surprised when it eventually did.
This time, Opelka used his tiebreaker experience to his benefit. He challenged a first serve from Schnur at 7-7 in the tiebreak and won it, resulting in a second serve from Schnur. He double-faulted, and on the ensuing point, Opelka dialed up the 156th ace of the tournament, a blistering 135 miles-per-hour out wide to seal the first tour level title of his career.
“This is definitely what I’m most proud of. I was tough mentally, especially losing a lot of first sets this week, and my first serve really helped me out,” said Opelka. “I was able to play clutch in those big moments.”
The excellent start to 2019 for Opelka shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, and while his first ATP title wasn’t something even he expected this quickly, he knew he was getting close. In 2018, Opelka saw his game take a huge leap, as he won three titles on the ATP Challenger Tour, and reached the quarterfinals of the Delray Beach Open, where he scored the first Top 10 win of his career. Those performances helped him finish the year ranked inside the Top 100 for the first time.
“Last year was huge for me. It was the first time I consistently put together a lot of matches in a row,” he said. “I reached a lot of semifinals and I think the year before there wasn’t one week where I had won three matches in a row. Being able to play on the Challenger Tour and not as many ATP Tour events helped me string all those matches together. It gave me a lot of confidence and I learned a lot about myself and my tennis. It allowed me to work on some things that I knew needed to be addressed.”
Opelka may not have to worry about playing in Challenger events anymore. With his New York Open run, he saw his ranking climb to 56th in the world, which will allow him entry into many tour level tournaments.
Long Island will now always be a special place for Opelka, who was born in Michigan and moved to Florida when he was four-years-old. While he grew up all the way down the coast from New York, his mother and father were both in attendance to witness his breakthrough tournament.
“I’m just so proud of Reilly,” his mother, Lynne Opelka, told FlagerLive.com “Because he’s come so far and put in so much work.”
And the title meant a lot more knowing his family was there to see it.
“She probably looked calm, but I don’t think she was calm,” Opelka joked during his post-match press conference. “Yeah, that was awesome. My mom’s been amazing to me through all of this. Her commitment is unreal—and her love for tennis is something she shared with me. I’m really happy she was there.”
With his New York Open victory as a stepping stone and a 43-spot ascent up the rankings, Opelka’s strong start to the year propels him into the top five of Americans in the ATP Men’s Singles Rankings, and one of the new faces of American tennis looking to make an impact in 2019.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com