NEW YORK–Not much is bothering Palm Coast’s Reilly Opelka at the U.S. Open these days.
Friday he found out, from a reporter’s Tweet, that the U.S. Open was fining him $10,000, the largest fee of the tournament thus far.
What egregious offense had he committed? A smashed racket? A vulgarity uttered loud enough to be heard? Nope, nothing like that.
His bright pink tote bag that he carries on the court, emblazoned with the logo of his favorite art gallery, The Tim Van Laere Gallery in Antwerp, Belgium, was deemed to be too large.
Opelka used what was called an “unapproved” bag, and he came out for his third-round match Saturday night against Nikoloz Basilashvili with the pink tote saying “unapproved,” after Tweeting “US Open ticket sales must be strugglin this year 10k for a pink bag, at least it looked fly.”
— Reilly Opelka (@ReillyOpelka) September 3, 2021
Yes, you could say nobody is having more fun at the Open that the former Indian Trails Middle School student, and now he’s into the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time ever. Making it this far earns him $265,000 already.
Playing solid, occasionally superb tennis from the middle of the first set on, he took apart the unsteady and former Top 20 standout Basilashvili in three sets, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-4 on a loud Grandstand court Saturday night.
Blasting 21 aces as part of his 52 winners against 41 errors (Basilashvili had only 27), Opelka broke serve five times and won an outstanding 73 percent of his points at net to cruise to the win.
“I’m so proud of Reilly and his mental fortitude to achieve such a high level of play, he was poetry in motion today on the court,” said Palm Coast City Council member Nick Klufas, a close friend of Opelka’s father, George, who lives in Grand Haven. Klufas has been following the matches from his home, with extra interest on the ever-burnishing Opelka brand: Klufas and his council colleagues earlier this month voted to rename the Palm Coast tennis Center the Reilly Opelka Racquet Center. The more victories Opelka accumulates, the more vindication for the name change. “He’s ascending to a level of tennis that puts any opponent on edge, he’s a matchup problem for everyone. He’s the highest seeded American left in the U.S. Open; he’s not only representing Palm Coast, but our country, in our Grand Slam. Palm Coast is incredibly proud to call Reilly one of our own. Keep hitting dingers, good luck Reilly!”
After the match Opelka got most animated talking about the fine.
“What a joke on the US Open to do that,” Opelka began. “10K for a pink bag? C’mon. The head referee was telling me you should have come in and had this thing measured. The ref just told me, I mean, I actually thought it was a different bag. We had that logo specifically made. We measured. It is too big. It was not the same bag I was using at the French Open. We made the effort to make it smaller. There was a mistake in production, I think, because in Europe with the conversion, with what was allowed.”
Opelka was almost done, but not quite.
“Yeah, I thought it was a bit harsh, a bit excessive. My job is not to measure logos. It is just not. My job is to win matches. I have bigger things to worry about.
“I’d love to see it get donated elsewhere. We’ve had a few tragedies here in the States the last couple weeks. If they are going to take 10K from me, it better not go to a major corporation. That’s my thought.” (Including his earnings so far at the U.S. Open, Opelka has accumulated $1.07 million in prize money this year, and $3.2 million in his brief career. The figures don’t include earnings from endorsements.)
That job of winning matches? He’s been doing a bang-up job of it. And perhaps more scary for the opposition that’s to come? He’s not even playing great.
Opelka still hasn’t played his best tennis yet this week, he feels–and Saturday night’s performance showed–but the gods of the draw keep shining on him. In this round he was slated to have played No. 9 seed Pablo Carreno Busta, but Busta was upset in his first match on Tuesday.
After winning Saturday, Opelka was expected to play Canadian superstar Denis Shapovalov in the fourth round Monday.
But Shapovalov was stunned in straight sets Saturday by unheralded Lloyd Harris, a 24-year-old having a career year (he beat Rafael Nadal earlier in the season) but ranked only No. 46, and like Opelka, he’s never been this far at a Slam. Harris and Opelka had a very tight match in Toronto last month, with Opelka saving a match point before winning in three sets. Opelka is theoretically two rounds away from a match with Novak Djokovic, the world’s Number 1 player who could break the record 20-grand
slam championships he shares with Roger Federer and Nadal if he wins the Open.
“Yeah, I wasn’t too happy with how I played,” Opelka said of his third-round match. “I think I got off to a slow start. I hit my forehand poorly. I think there’s a lot of good things that come from that. I found a way to win in straight sets against a great player, playing slightly below my average. One thing I think I did a great job of was I came in at the right time and I volleyed unbelievably well in big moments.”
Opelka reached the third round of Wimbledon in 2019, and the same level last June at Roland Garros, but he’s in new territory now, reaching another career milestone: He’s in the second week of a Slam, and he’s now going to be ranked inside the Top 20 for the first time, after the Open.
Opelka and Basilisashvili had never played each other, but started out smacking the ball past one another en route to one service break each in the first set.
In the first set tiebreak Opelka, who has improved his tiebreak record this year (he’s won 56 percent in 2021 after hovering around 50 percent most of his career), was down 4-3 but fired a 139-miles per hour ace, and went on to earn the set with a big volley winner at net.
It wasn’t just his big serve that helped the 7-footer win the opening set; the Georgian Basilashvili only allowed five aces in the first stanza, but Opelka’s all-court game was the difference. Opelka overcame a shakier-than-usual night from his mammoth forehand and was a leviathan at net, winning 19 of 26 net points.
In the second set it looked like Basilashvili finally got a little edge, breaking Opelka’s serve to take a 2-0 lead.
But the big Floridian came right back and ripped off the next four games, breaking serve twice to take a 4-2 lead.
He faced pressure at 4-3, as Basilashvili earned two break points, but Opelka crushed a few backhand winners and capped the hold with his fastest serve of the night, a 140-mile per hour cannon. (Fellow-American John Isner holds the record for the fastest-ever recorded serve at an ATP-recognized event, a 157.2-mph missile–the wind speed of a Cat 5 hurricane–at the 2016 Davis Cup. Isner, seeded 19 at the beginning of the tournament, fell in straight sets in the first round to Brandon Nakashima.)
The third set was more of the same, with Opelka breaking in the final game to clinch the win, as the Georgian double-faulted on match point.
One of the most striking things about Opelka in matches in 2021, and especially here at the Open, is how often he serves and volleys when in trouble. Whether it’s down 0-30, or facing a break point, he takes the risk of coming in behind his serve, often his second serve, and it’s proved very successful.
“When I’m not hitting my forehand well, I look to pick some more balls off at the net,” Opelka said. “Unfortunately today I didn’t have the luxury to keep him guessing as much. He did pick up onto it. I have one of the best serves in the world. There’s not much you can do sometimes.
“Yeah, I came in on some big points today because my forehand let me down. I’m not going to hide from it. It let me down.”
Not much has let Opelka down this week. He’s now earned enough shekels ($265,000 for reaching the fourth round) to bring whatever-sized bag he wants onto the tennis court, fines be damned.
— Michael J. Lewis for FlaglerLive.