Wimbledon has always been good to Palm Coast’s Reilly Opelka, and Wednesday at the All England Club, he found yet another reason to love the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world.
Showing poise and maturity well beyond his years, the 21-year-old scored the biggest victory of his young career in the second round of Wimbledon, defeating three-time Slam champion Stan Wawrinka in five scintillating sets on Court 2.
Opelka, in advancing to the third round of a Grand Slam event for the first time, rallied from two sets to one down to stun Wawrinka, 7-5, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 8-6 in front of a roaring crowd that included his father, George.
“It was such a super-fun atmosphere, it was awesome,” Opelka told BBC TV announcer (and former world No. 1) Mats Wilander moments after the match. “I love the smaller courts, it’s so intimate, and the crowd gets so into it. It was such a great experience.”
Opelka fired 23 aces and was able to break Wawrinka’s serve once each in the fourth and fifth sets after struggling to even get more than one point on Wawrinka’s service games in the second and third sets.
The victory puts Opelka into the third round on Friday, where he’ll face fellow enormous server Milos Raonic, the No. 15 seed who like the Swiss Wawrinka is a former Top 5 ranked player.
“I think outside of the Big 3, Raonic probably has the best chance to win Wimbledon,” Opelka said. “He’s as good as it gets on grass, so I’m really really excited for that matchup, playing a guy who’s so good on this surface.”
Opelka, who entered Wimbledon ranked No. 62, is a former junior Boys champion there (in 2015) but was making his men’s main draw debut this week. He lived in Palm Coast for six years as a child until leaving home at age 13 to live and train at the USTA National Training Center, then located in Boca Raton.
He’s enjoyed a breakout year on the ATP Tour in 2019, winning his first ATP-level tournament on Long Island in February and rising to a career-high rank of No. 52.
And after beating No. 512-ranked C-M Stebe in the first round of Wimbledon on Monday, Opelka faced a huge challenge in the 34-year-old Wawrinka.
And while the former Indian Trails Middle School student has had other major wins since turning pro in 2016, Wednesday’s triumph was definitely the biggest. Setting aside that it was at Wimbledon, the most famous tennis tournament in the world, this victory over Wawrinka was bigger than Opelka’s first-round Australian Open triumph over Top 10 John Isner in January, simply because Wawrinka is a far more accomplished player.
The Swiss who’s always been in the shadow of countryman Roger Federer has won each Grand Slam except Wimbledon once, and was a mainstay in the world Top 5 for years until an injury in 2017 forced him to the sidelines. He was seeded No. 22 at Wimbledon but is coming off a quarterfinals appearance at the French Open in June.
So Opelka was a decided underdog Wednesday, but quickly showed his mettle by grabbing the first set, 7-5, breaking Wawrinka at 5-all and holding his own serve to close out the set.
But the veteran Swiss with the prettiest backhand in the sport rallied once behind, breaking Opelka early in both the second and third sets, then easily pulling away to put the American 7-footer behind.
In the fourth set Opelka had to constantly save break points on his own serve (Wawrinka had 12 opportunities to break in the match and only converted two) and wasn’t getting even a sniff on Wawrinka’s serve.
But finally, with Wawrinka serving at 4-5 in the fourth, Opelka pounced. He was able to dominate three groundstrokes rallies to force Wawrinka into 30-40, and then on set point attacked the net and forced a Wawrinka backhand error.
A fist-pump toward his dad George and coach, Jay Berger, sent Opelka hurtling into a huge opportunity in the fifth.
“I started holding serve easier (in the 4th and 5th sets),” Opelka told the BBC. “Prior to that he was on my every game, I had to save so many break points, so once I made some adjustments on my serve, and I was able to hold serve easier, I could spend more energy and time thinking about how to break.”
In the deciding set, which for the first time ever this year at Wimbledon contained a match-deciding tiebreaker if the score got to 12-12, both Opelka and Wawrinka had their chances. Opelka had two break points at 1-0 in the fifth, but the Swiss refused to yield and rallied to hold.
As the match stretched past the three-hour mark, Opelka seemed to only grow stronger. He bashed 140-miles per hour serves even late in the fifth set, and began to look like the fresher player, digging deeper into Wawrinka’s service games.
“I’ve always been a pretty good mover, it helps me win so many points when I can scratch back so many balls, to win some key points,” Opelka told the BBC.
Serving from ahead definitely helped him psychologically, as Wawrinka was constantly having to hold serve just to stay in the match.
Finally, at 6-7, Opelka snatched his chance. He forced three straight Wawrinka errors to open Stan’s service game, giving the ex-Junior champ with the crowd now on his side three match points.
On the second one, Opelka sent a deep backhand return to Wawrinka’s feet, and the Swiss righthander sent a forehand looping into the net to end the match.
In addition to his 23 aces, Opelka drilled 36 other winners, and committed 38 unforced errors to Wawrinka’s 44 winners and 30 errors.
Now, with his world ranking poised to crack the Top 50 for the first time, Opelka gets to spend a few more days in London with his family, including his dad and Uncle Mike Opelka.
“How could you not love Wimbledon?” Opelka said. “Just having so much fun here.”
–Michael Lewis for FlaglerLive