Is There Something Off With Reilly Opelka?

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Reilly Opelka, the 21-year-old, near 7-foot giant out of the Midwest originally, has had a very nice ride on the ATP Tour over the last few years. Three years ago this week, Opelka was ranked no. 894 and now he sits at near his career-peak of no. 56 at no. 59. Twice this year, Opelka has beat the top American giant, no. 9 John Isner.

But to watch Opelka play is to puzzle over the fits he has sometimes on the court. This week in Estoril, Portugal, Opelka won his first match on the red dirt of Europe beating the Portuguese player, Pedro Sousa, in the first round, but then against Gael Monfils in the next round, a player who hasn’t suited up in over a month, Opelka won the first set and then proceeded to lose the next two sets, 6-3 and 6-0. During the match, Opelka turned towards his coach and I imagine a friend, and waved his arms in a fit over something while his coach and friend just looked at him without any expression.

Opelka is coached part-time by Jay Berger, but he’s not with the human skyscraper in Europe. Maybe Berger can instill some discipline into Opelka, but even though the young American has been climbing the rankings, this year besides beating Isner and Schwartzman and taking Danil Medvedev to a third set 7-6 defeat, he’s also lost to a number of minor smaller players like McKenzie McDonald, Thomas Fabbiano and Alex de Minaur. Sometimes, Opelka just seems to get a little unhinged.

Like last year, when he beat Jack Sock in Delray Beach, another no. 1 American at the time, I came across Opelka near midnight on Atlantic Avenue, talking but not seemingly with a young woman who’d obviously had a lot to drink. Opelka was friendly when I congratulated him on his victory over Sock, but I wondered what a young guy after a big win and another big match the next day, was doing out seemingly with no friends talking to a woman he didn’t seem to know.

One of the characteristics that has kept Isner at the top of the game for so long when he didn’t even start making an impact on the pro tour until he was 24 is his clear-mindedness. Isner has taken a very professional stance towards his tennis career and his fitness and never has lost his cool and flailed at his coaches that I have seen in the many matches I’ve watched him play.

Opelka is just at the beginning of his career and appears very fit physically, but mentally I wonder if he’s just a little bit off.



  • Thomas Tung · May 3, 2019 at 4:40 pm

    You nailed Opelka’s main issue, Dan, when you mentioned “mentally”.

    The times I’ve seen him in action live and on the screen, he gets way too sarcastic and down on himself on shots/points he plays poorly. I know that he (like all pros) expects to make the big shots, but he needs to ease up on himself, not worry too much about the scoreline, and trust/believe that he WILL make the big points, and not get too down on himself if he doesn’t. He needs to focus/concentrate, and let his game speak more than his “running self-directed sarcasm”. If he gets over that hurdle, he will break into the Top 50 or better for sure — he is a much more talented player than Isner, and moves much better; which translates to better defense, and better groundstrokes (that is, when he’s focused and sharp).

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 3, 2019 at 5:08 pm

    Opelka is a beast and way ahead of Isner at the same age, which suggests he will have a better career than Isner which would be remarkable. He has weapons, better striking, better movement, but Isner always was the better competitor. Opelka shows too much negative body language on the court, if he can find a way to transform his negative venting to totally positive venting, like Hewitt and Nadal, boy watch out for Opelka. At this stage, and it strange, he seems to prefer being negative than positive. This should be fixable.



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