These are the numbers on Reilly Opelka’s remarkable 2019 season on the pro tennis tour:
He won 27 matches and lost 23. He reached the third round of Wimbledon, and the second round of the Australian and U.S. Opens, with the latter resulting from a significant back injury suffered during the match.
The former Indian Trails Middle School student defeated four current or former Top 10 players, earned more than a million dollars in prize money ($1,042,624) and won his first ATP Tour-level title,at the New York Open on Long Island in February, while rising to a career-high ranking of No. 31 in the world.
But all of those wonderful accomplishments for the 22-year-old, 7-foot righthander don’t paint anywhere near a complete picture of who he is.
Instead, look to the things beyond data. Like the fancy and stylish Greg Lauren jacket he’s wearing while relaxing in a hotel lobby on a cold December morning in New York, during the laughably-short tennis offseason.
He doesn’t remember exactly where he got it, somewhere in Europe, he thinks, but it’s dark green and covers his enormous body.
He laughs when asked about it, but doesn’t seem at all uncomfortable admitting he’s getting used to the finer things that world-class tennis success can bring.
“I’ve made a lot of friends all over the world, and with stuff like fashion, I’ve been lucky to have friends in Milan and other cities who take me to good places that aren’t so touristy, and help me find things I like,” Opelka said. “That’s the best part of this life, having friends everywhere who take you to places they’re comfortable with, and I’m not.”
It has been a whole new world for Opelka the past few years, certainly, since the kid who first started smacking balls at Grand Haven and other courts around Palm Coast at age 8 turned professional in 2015. (Opelka is not expected to be making an appearance at the upcoming Palm Coast U.S. Pro Circuit Tournament beginning Feb. 3, but his father, Palm Coast resident George Opelka, said he expects his son to be home at some points in 2020 between tournaments).
Beyond the tennis court, Opelka has become a mature, intelligent young man who thinks before he speaks, is comfortable in his own skin, and understands that as his fame grows, his responsibility of handling that fame increases.
“I’m ready for that stuff, I think I really am,” Opelka said of being recognized more in the streets, signing autographs, and all that comes with being a top American tennis star. “The next few years are really big for me, because a tennis player usually peaks around 25-26 years old.”
One of the perks of getting more famous, of course, is getting to hang out and learn from other famous people.
And so one of the cool things Opelka got to do in 2019 was donate a tennis package/hangout session for kids for a charity run by skateboarding legend Ryan Sheckler.
Maturity is a tricky thing for an athlete. Sometimes your athletic talents and accomplishments race far ahead than your ability to handle all that.
But Opelka said he’s learned to mature quickly due to the lonely lifestyle of his sport.
“Tennis makes you mature faster, because you’re on your own a lot, traveling 30-plus weeks a year by yourself, mostly. “You learn a lot about yourself, being alone, and being in an individual sport teaches you a lot of things, from the standpoint of learning how to run a business.”
George Opelka said he’s definitely seen changes in his son over the past year.
“Reilly is more professional about everything, every day,” George Opelka said. “If you’re ranked 100 in the world, you better be as professional as Fed (Roger Federer). Reilly spends more time taking care of his body than he does on the tennis court; that’s so important when you’re a pro.”
Off the court, George Opelka said being exposed to so much more than tennis has impacted his son.
“Just being exposed to different cultures, and seeing how less fortunate some people are, is something he and I have talked about a bit,” George Opelka said. “He and his team, they’ll go out and see things away from the tennis court: He’s been to art galleries. He told me he’s been to an incredible cliff, more people commit suicide there than any place in the world.” He was referring to the Beachy Head cliff in East Sussex, England.
“There are things that are just sobering, like some areas where the poverty level is such that you’re either extremely poor, or a millionaire. It all has had an affect on him.”
Opelka’s not completely alone, of course, he has a full-time traveling coach, Jean-Yves Aubone, with his main coach Jay Berger training Opelka in Florida when he’s there, and two physical trainers who alternate traveling to tournaments with him, Gary Kitchell and Wolfgang Oswald.
But he said he’s learned to be independent when it comes to exploring the world. Despite being only 22 and on tour for a few years, he said he’s done “all the touristy stuff” you can do in world cities like Tokyo, Barcelona and Rome.
“It was all new and exciting at first, but then you do all that and you run out of ideas so you have to find other things to do,” Opelka said. “I’m a foodie, so I love to try a ton of different international foods.
“New York has the best food in the world, everyone knows that,” he said with a laugh. “But I like eating everywhere, especially Tokyo.”
Indeed it’s the capital of Japan that got Opelka the most animated in our chat; he raved about the city’s cleanliness, the kindness of the locals, the weather, and the sushi (It may have helped Opelka’s view of the city that when he was there for the Tokyo Open in October, he won three matches and reached the semifinals.)
His fashion interests also led him to strike up a friendship with some cutting-edge companies like the brothers who run Mulch California, a sustainable-clothing outfit who have made outfits for Opelka to wear off-court.
Heading into the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the year, beginning Jan. 20, Opelka hopes to soar into the Top 20 and continue his success. And most of all, stay healthy.
For the first time as a pro the huge-serving righty made it through the grueling season almost injury-free, suffering a back injury in September at the U.S. Open that, ironically, Opelka says helped him finish the year strongly.
“I had 5-6 injections at HSS and couldn’t leave New York City for about 10 days after I lost,” Opelka said, referring to Hospital Special Surgery, a world-class medical facility in Manhattan. “That helped a lot. Just having two weeks off, not touching a racket and being around friends and family, it was really refreshing. The last two months on tour didn’t feel so bad because I had that break.”
Aubone, who’s been with Opelka for two years, said his boss’ mental strength was the biggest reason for success last year.
“Just his ability to stay calm in big matches, and having the confidence in himself to know that he’s put in the work, and that he’s going to win the big points, was such a big difference,” Aubone said. “A lot of that had to do with fitness; he trusted his body, and his body allowed him to stay on the practice court longer, so he was able to improve so much.”
Opelka’s finishing kick to the season, where he reached the semis in Tokyo and in Basel, Switzerland (he fell one tiebreaker loss in the semis short from playing his childhood idol, Roger Federer, in the final), followed his spectacular summer, highlighted by Wimbledon.
Trailing Wawrinka, a future Hall of Famer working his way back from injury, two sets to one, Opelka rallied and found a way to win in five. It showed great growth from just six months earlier at the Australian Open, where he lost a five-setter.
“He was hanging in there, not even thinking of trying to win the match but just hanging in and making this Grand Slam winner work,” Aubone said. “And knowing he was fighting, and then getting the match even, and winning in the fifth, thatt’s when I think he got the biggest confidence boost this year.”
“I stole so many matches this year when I didn’t play well, just by hanging around,” Opelka said.
Opelka and Aubone said at various points of 2019 that Reilly was “a little ahead of schedule” in his career with how far his ranking zoomed, and now the goals have been recalibrated a tiny bit. Realistically, given that his ATP ranking points are spread throughout the year, and how much growth is available at the Grand Slams, Opelka could break into the Top 20 this year, overtake Isner as the No. 1 American, and make the second week of a Slam.
There are still lots of improvements in Opelka’s game to be made, starting with his return of serve, which Opelka called “horrible.”
But given how far he’s come in so short a time, it’s not crazy to think he could be, as some tennis commentators have said, a future Grand Slam singles champion.
Imagine the designer clothes he could get in Milan if that happened.
–Michael Lewis for FlaglerLive