NEW YORK — The roles are shifting a little bit for 24-year-old Reilly Opelka in pro tennis these days.
For years he’s been the younger player in big matches, hoping to topple more seasoned players who’ve been on the ATP tennis Tour a lot longer than he has. It has usually been the 7-foot former Indian Trails Middle School student who lacked the experience and sometimes poise at key moments.
But Thursday afternoon, on a picture-perfect afternoon in New York that followed a once-in-a-generation amount of flooding and disarray in this city, it was Opelka was the wiser, savvier player.
In a second-round U.S. Open match on cozy but loud Court 17 of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Opelka schooled 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti of Italy, 7-6 (1), 7-5, 6-4, to advance to the third round here for the first time.
Opelka’s shot-making and confidence were on full display in the crucial first-set tiebreaker, and in two games in the following sets when he secured the only service breaks he would need.
Musetti, a wildly-talented shotmaker who is ranked No.60 but is on the way up, had some great moments but cracked under the pressure of 31 Opelka aces.
“The difference is experience, and learning how to approach some points; there’s such small little details,” Opelka said in his press conference, moments after a live ESPN interview (he’s getting more famous by the day at the Open). “Sometimes you make an adjustment and the results don’t show right away. The key is to constantly keep calm, so my mind can keep thinking about what I can do different, and things will work out.”
Before a loud pro-Opelka crowd, the two players held serve fairly easy throughout the first set until the tiebreak.
Then the point of the match occurred: Opelka charged the net and smacked a volley that Musetti seemed to have a clear chance at ending the point. The Italian raced forward and blasted a backhand down the line that Opelka instinctively stuck out his racket at and it pinged off the big man’s racket back toward Musetti. Musetti tried again with another blast but again Opelka guessed right, and tapped a forehand volley into the open court for a winner.
Opelka screamed “Come on!” toward his box and pumped his fist, the biggest emotional release of the match.
“I was clutch in the breaker, that was the whole turning point of the match, that first point,” Opelka said. “I lose that point, it’s 1-0, and he’s got two serves coming, and then maybe it’s 3-0. It was kind of lucky, but I guessed right, twice.”
“The first point of the tiebreaker, the way he let out the emotion there relaxed him, let him play a little freer,” Opelka’s co-coach, Jean-Yves Aubone, said. “I think he needed something like that and it helped him.”
Opelka went on to play a stellar tiebreak, winning it 7-1. The second set played out similarly to the first, with both players holding easily until 5-all.
There, Opelka, who was featured in a Vanity Fair online story Thursday, forced two errors to start the game, then a Musetti double fault gave the Floridian two break points.
He seized the moment with a deep backhand approach and gained the break with a forehand volley winner.
The third set was much the same, except this time the break of serve for Opelka came at 3-all.
He fired his 31st and final ace on match point, and now advances to play talented Georgian (the country, not the state) Nikolai Basilashvili, who beat American Max Cressy Thursday.
Despite being the top-ranked American male left in the draw, the U.S. Open schedulers didn’t put Opelka on one of the major stadium courts, but the more he keeps winning, he’ll certainly get a bigger live showcase soon.
“I don’t think I played great today and that’s what I loved about it,” Opelka said. “That’s what good players start to do, win when they’re not playing their best.”
Opelka’s confidence on the court, and off, is growing by leaps and bounds. He laughed when a reporter commented on his bushy hair, with Opelka saying he “looks like an idiot” if he wears a headband.
“I’m staying right across from a really nice salon. I could easily just go in. But, yeah, I have kind of embraced it,” Opelka said. “I actually kind of like the look a little bit. I think it’s hilarious. Do you know “Happy Gilmore’s” caddie? When I wear the hat with the hair showing, I’m definitely going as him for Halloween, the Subway hat. We have already planned the whole thing. That’s going to be my Halloween costume.”