When he was asked about his ‘exact height’ during the post-match conference, Reilly Opelka shifted tersely. “I have been asked this a lot in recent months,” he said. “The same I was yesterday.” His ATP profile lists him as 6’11, but he’s believed to be closer to 7 feet. “Yea, somewhere there,” he said.
Opelka was probably hoping that at least on Wednesday the biggest curiosity wouldn’t be how tall he is. The 21-year-old had just scored his first five-set victory at a Grand Slam, at Wimbledon, against three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka. And while his height had given him a certain edge, sending down 23 aces, the young American had to veer his way around Stan’s baseline bombs with a certain agility that seemed improbable for a man his size.
“I have always been a pretty good mover – underrated maybe,” said Opelka after beating 22nd seed Wawrinka 7-5, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 8-6 in the second round on Wednesday. “Some guys don’t expect it when they play me for the first time.”
Even though he was making his debut at Wimbledon, Opelka is no stranger to the lawns at SW19. The American had won the boys’ singles championship in 2015 and made it to the finals of the doubles event. Indian fans may remember that Opelka was one of the opponents when Sumit Nagal, along with his Vietnamese partner Ly Hoang Nam, claimed the boys’ doubles title that year.
From an early age, Opelka has towered over his opponents. Literally. An athletic child, he took up tennis full time only at the age of 13 and is a product of the USTA’s training programme in Boca Raton, Florida. Given his height, Opelka also has to field a lot of questions on whether he’d rather have been a basketball player – after all he is three inches taller than the biggest NBA star of his generation, LeBron James.
“I regret it every day,” he joked after the biggest scalp of his career at Wimbledon. “It’s my favourite sport. Actually, when I'm at home I shoot every day, I go to the court. But I never played it seriously.”
Opelka and Ivo Karlovic (also 6’11) are the tallest players on the men’s tour, closely followed at 6’10 by John Isner – the 2018 Wimbledon semi-finalist. The youngster says he gets approached for autographs when fans mistake him for the more-established Isner from time to time, and to get back, he intentionally spells Isner’s first name ‘Jon’.
Despite being one of ATP’s well-marketed Next Gen, Opelka hasn’t exactly been under the spotlight. Till last year, he was earning his bread and butter on the Challenger circuit. In 2018, he suffered from foot and lower-back injuries and missed five weeks due to mononucleosis in the summer.
Opelka, who wears size 15 shoes, has taken big strides on the ATP Tour this season. It’s the two wins over his compatriot Isner, though, which made the world sit up and take notice. Opelka defeated Isner in the first round of the Australian Open and then in the semi-finals at the ATP 250 New York Open in three tie-break sets. That last-four encounter, already the ‘tallest’ tour match, brought down a few serving records. Opelka hit 43 aces, Isner 38 in a tally of 81 – the most number of aces in a three-set match. Opelka hit 156 aces and notched up 68 consecutive service holds that week to end up with the first ATP title win of his career.
But the young American’s game is more than a serve. He plays ‘big man tennis’, but can just as well stay at the baseline and belt winners – which is what he had to do in the last two sets against Wawrinka.
American coach Tom Gullikson, who has shaped the careers of players like Jim Courier, Andy Roddick and Jennifer Capriati, was instrumental in Opelka’s development too. “He probably is 7'0", so let’s just call it what it is,” Gullikson was quoted as saying. “Maybe Reilly is the first seven-footer in the history of tennis. It is pretty much fundamental that the taller you are, the higher your center of gravity is. Tennis is such a fast-twitched sport with so many changes of direction. The challenge for Reilly is having the ability to stop and start and change direction constantly. Reilly moves really well for his size. He can do just about anything on a tennis court.”
Opelka had to summon all of his weaponry to find a way past Wawrinka after being two sets to one down. After letting the first set slip, ‘Stanimal’ had started to get a measure of Opelka’s serve. He also made life difficult for the big man by hitting the ball deep, not giving the American youngster enough chances to come to the net. What undid Wawrinka was that he made too many errors of his own. Grass is not the Swiss’ favourite surface and Wawrinka made 30 unforced errors on the day, 21 of which came in the fourth and fifth sets.
Even though the American made 38 unforced errors, he had a much higher winners count at 59 (Wawrinka had 44). The youngster backed up his huge serve, well over 130 mph and peaked at 142 mph, by coming into the net constantly and keeping the points short. He made 72 trips to the net and won 43 of those points. Having saved a break point at 6-6, Opelka went on to break Wawrinka’s serve in the very next game. He served out the match as a limp second shot from Wawrinka plopped into the net.
“It’s a huge win for me,” said Opelka, who had never won a match on grass – at the senior level – before this week. “More so the situation of the match, being 1-2 down. He easily could have walked away with that in four sets, but I'm proud of the way I competed. Today we went through a patch where he had break points almost every game (Opelka saved 10 of 12 break points). That’s what good players do, they make you find other ways to win, which you are not always comfortable with. I played a lot of tennis on the baseline today.”
In the third round, Opelka will take on Milos Raonic, another big guy with a big serve. Opelka will still have a six-inch advantage over the 2016 Wimbledon finalist. But who’s counting?
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Updated Date: Jul 04, 2019 13:30:30 IST