FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. – The kid from Grand Haven finally got his first big New York moment.
Reilly Opelka, the former Indian Trails Middle School student who is rocketing to tennis stardom more every day, scored the biggest upset of the first day of the U.S. Open Monday.
The 21-year-old showed poise and patience and overcame a brief third-set collapse to knock out No. 11 seed Fabio Fognini, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3 before a packed house on Court 17 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
In his U.S. Open main draw debut, the 47th-ranked Opelka, in front of Mom Lynne and Uncle Mike Opelka, showed his rapid ascent in 2019 has been no fluke.
“It was a great feeling, first win, on a packed court, with the crowd cheering me,” Opelka said of his first U.S. Open win. “I just tried to be as offensive as I could, and stay calm and dictate as many points as possible.
Of all the impressive aspects of Opelka’s win over perennial Top 10 player Fognini, the most astonishing is that the 7-foot Opelka didn’t serve anywhere near as well as he normally does, yet still cruised through three of the four sets. Though his first serves averaged 125 mph (his fastest was 142), the son of George and Lynne Opelka, who still live in Palm Coast, made only 43 percent of his first serves over the first two sets, and 57 percent for the match, well below his best.
“I’ll take it,” Opelka said of winning without serving in top form. “It was a little windy today, balls felt a little slow. I really had to serve big, so that played with my percentage a little bit.”
Opelka broke the Italian Fognini’s serve once early in each of the first two sets, and when he broke again midway through the third to go up 4-2, it looked like a routine win was on tap.
But Fognini, who drew two code violations for his behavior Monday, found his game for about 20 minutes and battled back to 5-all.
Still, after Opelka broke serve to go up 6-5, it looked like the Florida kid would need just a few more aces to close it out. But surprisingly Opelka was broken at love.
“He took the racket right out of my hands there,” Opelka said. “He just played a great game.”
Then in the tiebreak, Opelka again seemed on the verge of victory, leading 5-2, and later holding a match point. But Fognini rallied and snatched the set, and on the changeover Opelka sat on his chair with his arms crossed for a long minute, perhaps ruing what got away.
“I wasn’t upset at all, I was just sitting there,” Opelka said. “It was tough. I was up a break earlier, and I served for the match, so it was just comfortable knowing I’ve had chances to break him, multiple times each set. I knew that based on the history of the match so far, I’d have other chances to break.”
Showing the poise and maturity that has come in spades this year, Opelka shook it off and resumed his beatdown of Fognini.
He drilled 26 aces as part of his 58 winners, to go along with only 34 unforced errors. And up 2-1 in the fourth set, Opelka smacked a huge forehand winner down the line on break point to crack Fognini and go up 3-1.
This time, there’d be no lapse, and on match point the ATP Tour’s tallest player ever smacked a forehand approach shot for the victory.
As the crowd erupted, Opelka did his customary celebration after shaking hands with Fognini, taking a few steps toward his player box and punching the air a few times with his right arm.
Opelka will now play again on Wednesday, his 22nd birthday, against a player much-less accomplished than Fognini: Qualifier Dominik Koepfer of Germany (ranked No. 115). or Spain’s Jaume Munar (Ranked No. 105).
–Michael Lewis for FlaglerLive