The margins between winning and losing a pro tennis match can be as thin as an inchworm.
And unfortunately for Palm Coast’s Reilly Opelka, it was just a tiny difference Tuesday night/Wednesday morning that prevented him from a fabulous win.
The 23-year-old battled his best friend, Taylor Fritz, for more than four hours in a second-round match at the Australian Open, and was at one juncture just two points away from winning and getting to the third round Down Under for the first time.
But the No. 27 seed Fritz hung in and outlasted the Floridian in a five-thriller, winning 4-6, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-2 on 1573 Arena.
The match was very tight for the first three-plus hours, and after breaking Fritz’s serve once in the first set, then prevailing in two of the next three tiebreakers, it looked like the 7-foot Opelka was on the verge of a breakthrough.
In the fourth set, after the best buddies traded service breaks, Opelka raced out to a 5-1 lead in the fourth set tiebreak, a mere two points from victory.
But then Fritz, the highest-ranked American men’s player in the Australian Open draw, reached down and found some magic.
He forced three straight Opelka errors on groundstrokes, and went on to win six straight points in the breaker to snatch it, 7-5, and keep his hope alive.
Then, as the match stretched toward the four hour mark, Fritz finally got some distance, breaking Opelka’s mammoth serve twice to start the final set and racing out to a 4-0 lead, before finishing the match off just before 4 a.m. Eastern time, with a crosscourt forehand winner.
Opelka drilled 43 aces and made 66 percent of his first serves, a good percentage for him, while Fritz smacked 18 aces and made 61 percent of first serves. Opelka struck 91 winners to 86 unforced errors, while Fritz had 54 and 33, respectively.
It was the second straight year Opelka lost a five-set heartbreaker in Australia; in 2020 he fell to Fabio Fognini in a first-round five-setter as well. It was also the fourth five-setter Opelka has played at the Australian Open, with him winning one of them.
As a “reward” for the victory Fritz now faces world No. 1, and eight-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic in the third round.
Opelka was looking to equal his career-best appearance at a Grand Slam tournament; in 2019 he reached the third round at Wimbledon before falling to Milos Raonic.
It was the first meeting at a Grand Slam for Opelka and Fritz, who are extremely close friends: Opelka was in Fritz’s wedding. Due to the pandemic restrictions on players bringing coaches and trainers to Australia, the combatants Tuesday night have been sharing Opelka coach Jean-Yves Aubone, and trainer to both of them, Wolfgang Oswald.
Fritz had beaten the Floridian three of four times they’ve played on the ATP Tour, including their last encounter last year in Belgium, where Fritz won 7-6 (5), 6-1. Opelka beat his friend in their previous encounter, in Tokyo, in 2019, 6-3, 6-4.
—Michael J. Lewis for Flagler Live