It was maybe the best week of Reilly Opelka’s pro tennis career, and it nearly ended in the biggest trophy of his life.
But the ex-Palm Coast resident came up short in the championship match of the National Bank Open in Toronto Sunday. Competing in a Masters 1000 level tournament final for the first time, Opelka was bested by World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, 6-4, 6-3.
Opelka, who has now risen to a career-high No. 23 in the ATP rankings, played a strong match that would’ve beaten many other top players. He served big, smacked backhand winners and stayed poised in long rallies.
But Medvedev is playing better than anyone else not named Novak Djokovic these days, and he seized on several big moments to capture the title. Masters 1000 events are the highest level of tennis tournaments besides the four Grand Slams.
“He was flawless,” Opelka said in his post-match press conference. “I had one chance to break early. I don’t think that would have changed much because he was in so many of my service games … “he’s hard, it’s hard to disrupt him, hard to hurt him, hard to really hurt him.”
A big stat Sunday was first serve points won by Opelka; on the year he’s won 77 percent of them, thanks to his 130-mph plus bombs. But against Medvedev he won only 63 percent, and had to work hard for almost every service hold, and Opelka served but eight aces, 10 fewer than average.
The 23-year-old former Indian Trails Middle School student started the match strongly and had a fabulous opportunity to grab an early lead when, leading 2-1 in the first set, he raced to a 0-40 lead on Medvedev’s serve.
But the Russian rallied back to win the next five points, then broke Opelka’s own serve in the next game to grab a 3-2 lead.
That was all Medvedev, a former U.S. and Australian Open finalist, needed to take the opening set, holding serve easily the rest of the way, using his 6-foot-6 frame to pound his way to an advantage.
In the second set Medvedev continued to put pressure on Opelka’s serve; the 7-footer is used to winning quite a few free points on his own racket in matches, but Medvedev is such a strong returner that he was making Opelka work very hard for each hold.
At 1-all in the second set, Medvedev responded with stinging groundstrokes and broke serve again, as Opelka double-faulted on break point.
Opelka had a break point down 3-2 but couldn’t convert; From there Opelka never could quite crack the code of the big Russian, who is one of the favorites at the upcoming U.S. Open.
“Everyone is good,” Opelka said. “I have lost to so many — my matches are such a fine line, you know. I’m 6-All in the third — upside/downside of my game is I can be 6-All in the third with Medvedev, which I’ve been many times, and I can be 6-All in the third with a guy outside of the top 100.
“So that’s the downside to me is, you know, the level, the discrepancy and level between me and those guys, it’s extremely small. It’s already small for anyone in general, but even for me it’s always going to come down to a couple of points.”
Opelka was bidding for his third career title on the ATP Tour; he’d previously won the New York Open on Long Island in 2019, and the Delray Beach Open in 2020.
By winning five matches in Toronto coming into the final, Opelka vaulted his ATP world ranking to No. 23, his highest ever, and he’ll now be seeded at the last Slam of the year, the U.S. Open, starting Aug. 30.
And he leaves Toronto with some newfound confidence, especially off his semifinal win over world No.3 Stefanos Tsitsipas. Opelka’s on-court demeanor, his body language, has been so much improved this season, so much less negative, a sure sign of maturity as he comes closer to his tennis prime.
Asked what he’s learned this week, he responded: “Yeah, I mean, I have learned a lot about myself. I learned that the difference between some matches is so small, you’ve just really got to be optimistic … I think this week was a great example of using that optimistic mindset as much as possible. I think it can extend some weeks, even if it’s just one tournament per year, maybe two a year. I mean, look what this does for my ranking. That’s all it takes, you know.”
–Michael Lewis for FlaglerLive