Reilly Opelka finished off the biggest win of his life With his 40th ace of the match Sunday night.
The 21-year-old pro tennis player pulled off a huge upset in the first round of the Australian Open in Melbourne, besting one of his idols and the No. 9 seed, John Isner, in four sets, 7-6, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6.
It was the first Grand Slam singles win of Opelka’s young career, and the second time he’s ever beaten a Top 10 player. He defeated fellow American Jack Sock in Delray Beach last February.
The former Indian Trails Middle School student, now 7-feet tall, showed his maturity and improved ground game to stun Isner, who was ranked 9th in the world going into the game, rallying from 3-5 down in the fourth set to pull off the shocker. Opelka was ranked 97th.
In keeping with his laid-back demeanor (he seems to find his Florida every time he takes the court), Opelka wasn’t overcome with excitement when it was over, smiling and pumping his fist but staying calm.
“It’s a big win, yeah, but it’s not like a breakthrough win,” Opelka said in a post-match press conference. “I’m still barely top 100 so I still have a lot of progress I feel like has to be done, to improve, to continue to get my ranking up.
“But it’s a big win.”
Opelka, whose parents, George and Lynne, still live in Palm Coast, lost a five-set thriller to then-world No. 11 David Goffin at the Australian Open in 2017. That was Opelka’s only Grand Slam main draw match until Sunday night.
But thanks to a pair of ATP Challenger Tour wins in November, Opelka had risen to a career-high rank of No. 97 entering the first Slam of the year, and for the first time his ranking was high enough to ensure a spot in the Australian Open main draw.
Playing the 6-foot-10 Isner, whom Opelka has been compared to for years (the two also share an agent, Sam Duvall of Top Notch Management), Opelka held his own and worked the first set to a tiebreak, then raced out to a 3-0 lead in the breaker before prevailing, 7-4. Opelka drilled 40 aces in the match, compared to 47 for Isner.
On the ESPN broadcast of the match, tennis legend John McEnroe predicted Opelka would one day “be in the Top 10 for sure,” raving about Opelka’s future chances, and in the first two sets Opelka looked poised to make McEnroe look wise for his comment.
In the second set, both players again held serve throughout, leading to another tiebreak, and it looked like Isner would level the match, going up 6-4 in the breaker. But Opelka came up with a couple of huge passing shots in the next few minutes, including a blistering backhand down the line on set point. He pumped his fist, taking a two-set lead.
“Of course I looked up to him. He’s been top 15, top 20 in the world for a crazy long amount of time now,” Opelka said of Isner, who reached the semis of Wimbledon in 2018, where Opelka was Boys Champion in 2015) “It’s been helpful watching him, but at the same time, we’re different. There are similarities, but the ball comes back a lot more for me than it will for him,” Opelka said, referring to when he’s on serve. “At least for now.”
With a chance to close out the biggest win of his career in the third-set tiebreak, Opelka couldn’t quite finish, as Isner got a mini-break at 2-3 and snagged a 7-3 tiebreak victory.
And as the fourth set progressed, it looked like the more experienced Isner would stage a big rally. After not facing a break point on his serve for three sets, Opelka double-faulted three times at 2-3 in the fourth set to get broken, and fell down 5-3 a few minutes later.
“I was ready to play a fifth,” Opelka said. “That’s kind of what I was thinking.”
But just like Opelka had hiccuped on serve earlier, Isner suddenly got tight. Serving at 5-4, Isner made three unforced errors on his forehand, and the set was dead even.
“I got lucky to get a break,” he said.
A few minutes later in the tiebreak, Opelka scored an early point on Isner’s serve, then steadied and hung on, punctuating the match with a devastating ace out wide.
He’ll now play No. 100 Thomas Fabbiano of Italy in the second round on Tuesday night. The match can be seen on the Watch ESPN app.