Palm Coast tennis star Reilly Opelka is right on the cusp of getting an easier Grand Slam tournament draw.
He’s ranked No. 35 in the world, and only the Top 32 players get a seed, meaning they’ll face lower-ranked opponents in the first round.
Unfortunately for Opelka, he was facing two opponents Monday night on Court 17 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center: The world No. 10 ranked player David Goffin, an outstanding all-around competitor, and Opelka’s own balky right knee, which he re-injured last week.
Both foes ended up knocking the 22-year-old out of this very strange U.S. Open, as Opelka fell in four sets, 7-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4.
The former Indian Trails Middle School student simply ran into a very tough opponent and had some uncharacteristic trouble on his serve in the final set.
The 7-foot Opelka managed a pedestrian (for him) 18 aces and made 56 unforced errors against Goffin, one of the best defenders in the world.
Prior to the tournament, Opelka said he didn’t have high expectations for the Open.
“I don’t have any expectations, because I don’t know what to expect, since it’s been so long that we’ve all been off from tournaments,” he said. “As long as I play good tennis, that’s all that matters.”
Opelka, who was one player withdrawal away from being seeded at the Open, instead had to play a Top 10 player in the first round in Goffin, who Opelka defeated in five sets at the 2017 Australian Open, a victory that put Opelka on many radars.
But as is often the case, the 22-year-old Opelka didn’t enter the Open fully healthy; he was suffering from patellar tendinitis in his right knee at the warmup tournament, the Western and Southern Open, last week, and after three impressive wins, had to retire in the first set in his match against Top 5 player Stefanos Tsitsipas as the knee flared up.
He looked pretty strong at the start on Monday, as he and all the rest of the players had to adjust to a virtually empty stadium and grounds.
Watching on TV you heard every grunt, every sweet winner of the racket, and each person clapping as less than 10 people were allowed to watch Opelka-Goffin live (each player was allowed to bring only three people inside the “U.S. Open bubble.”
The first set went, as Opelka Grand Slam sets often do, to a tiebreak, with neither player facing a break point on their serve.
But Opelka, who has improved greatly in tiebreaks the last two years, faltered against Goffin. Goffin seized the lead early and ran off to a 7-2 tiebreak win to grab the lead in the match.
Opelka had three break point chances in the third game of the second set, but couldn’t convert.
Finally on his fifth break point of the match, at 3-all in the set, Opelka crushed a forehand down the line to break Goffin and give the former Indian Trails Middle School student an edge.
The final game of the set was a thing of beauty from Opelka, with a drop shot winner setting up double break point, and then a fantastic 1-2 combo of a teeth-baring slice return down the line, followed by a devastating forehand winner to give Opelka the set, 6-3, and leveling the match.
But in the third set, Goffin finally broke through on Opelka’s serve, and shockingly broke the American three times to take it 6-1.
Opelka seemed to be moving slowly in that set but recovered in the fourth, which looked a lot like the first. Both players held easily to 5-4, Goffin, and Opelka jumped out to a 40-o lead and looked a sure bet to extend things.
But a pair of unforced errors and some strong Goffin groundstrokes led to match point, and a big forehand winner by the Frenchman ended Opelka’s U.S. Open.
The good news for Opelka is that, health permitting, he’ll get to play another Grand Slam very soon. The French Open is scheduled to start on Sept. 21.
In this crazy year, anything is possible.