Millions of kids pick up a tennis racket in childhood and dream of one day becoming professional stars.
Then that enormous pyramid of wannabe Roger Federers and Rafael Nadals gets winnowed as they get older. Some burn out. Others simply don’t have the talent to get to the highest level. Still others suffer injuries or lose interest. Or discover badminton. By around age 18, that pyramid is awfully skinny, with just a few hundred young men and women possessing the combination of athleticism, skill, brains and mental capacity it takes to compete on the pro tennis tour.
Reilly Opelka was one of those millions nine years ago, when he first picked up a racket and began smacking forehands and serves all over the concrete and clay courts of Flagler County, especially at the now-defunct Players Club. A mentor and longtime Flagler resident, former pro and current coach Tom Gullikson, took a shine to Opelka and groomed him in the skills and history of the game.
Now Opelka appears to be one of the chosen ones: a kid who once dreamed of meeting Federer is placing himself in position to perhaps one day square off againt him at a Grand Slam tournament.
The 17-year-old Palm Coast native realized a dream on April 25 when he decided to forego college scholarship offers from dozens of Division I programs and turn pro.
Opelka, a 6-foot-10 giant with a huge serve and powerful groundstrokes, signed with the Lagardere Unlimited Agency, a major player in tennis with clients that include top Americans John Isner and Sam Querrey.
Though he doesn’t turn 18 until August, Opelka will begin his pro career in May while still being eligible to play the Junior Grand Slams in 2015, including the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He’s competed at the Open twice. He’s currently ranked No. 30 in the world junior rankings.
“I really feel at peace with my decision, though it was a hard one, and I’m really excited to get started,” Opelka said in a phone interview from Boca Raton, where he’s lived and trained full-time for the past five years at the USTA Training Center. “College was my plan all along until last September, when things gradually shifted and (the opportunity) to turn pro seemed like a possibility.”
Palm Coast’s Men’s Futures Tournament lives up to its billing.
Opelka has been on a fast upward trajectory ever since moving to Boca with his mom, Lynne, at age 12 (Lynne and her husband George still live in Palm Coast’s Grand Haven). His frame and reputation soared as he competed and beat some of the top American juniors, including fellow new pros Francis Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov, both of whom have more international experience.
But the past nine months have really increased Opelka’s pro potential, as he won a round at the U.S. Open Juniors for the first time, then captured the highly-prestigious Eddie Herr junior tournament for the first time.
He also swung through the professional tour in winter, competing in several minor-league pro events on the Futures tour, including an event in Palm Coast in January. He made it to the quarterfinals at Palm Coast’s Men’s Futures Tournament, serving 14 aces and taking the first set in a two-and-a-half hour match against 24-year-old Connor Smith before losing the next two.
Sam Duvall, an agent with Lagardere, had been tracking and speaking with the Opelkas for several years. He took notice of Reilly’s rather notable swing through the pro tour and prepared to make him an offer.
“Winning Eddie Herr was a big deal, but I never tried to pressure him into a decision or anything like that,” Duvall said. “I always said that when you’re ready to have a discussion, here’s what we can do, and Reilly felt like now was the right time.” By “we,” he was referring to Lagradere.
Gullikson, who is practically a member of the Opelka family by now, gushed about his former protégé. “It’s always a tough decision, but Reilly is a smart, thoughtful kid and it’s great that he’ll now have the resources, financially and on the tennis side, to go live his dream,” said Gullikson, now a coach with the USTA. “There’s nothing easy about doing this, and there are no guarantees, but he’s going in with a great team behind him and he’s doing it the right way.”
Opelka was thought to be deciding between the University and Southern California and University of Florida for college, and was considered by many tennis sites as the No.1 recruit for 2015. But he said by March he’d made up his mind to turn pro. His parents fully supported the decision.
“You just don’t know because you’ve never been down this road before,” George Opelka said. “But we listened to some of the smartest people in tennis, who have been advising him, and they laid out all the challenges and benefits, and Reilly decided this was the way to go.”
As exciting and glamorous as a pro tennis career sounds, it’s far from that when first starting out. Opelka will be playing events all over the world, for very little prize money, against players sometimes more than a decade older than him.
Jay Berger, a former top 20 pro who’s now the director of men’s tennis for the USTA and has worked with Opelka extensively, estimated that between 4 to 8 percent of players in the Top 100 went college and turned pro. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 4 to 8 percent of players skipped college.)
“There’s no one way to have a successful career,” Berger said. “It’s a personal decision each kid and each family has to make. We gave (the Opelkas) as much information as we could, and told them that we think Reilly’s ready. He’s made a lot of improvement in all areas of his game, his growth has slowed down a bit to allow his body to catch up, and he’s always been a hard worker.
“It takes about four years,” Berger noted, “realistically, to tell” whether turning pro and skipping college is the right decision.
Justin Gimelstob is a former Top 75 pro who went to college for two years before joining the ATP Tour, and is now a broadcaster and coach.
He said top juniors skipping college and turning pro “tends to go in cycles,” with the current, by all measures extremely promising, generation of young Americans nearly all opting to go pro first.
“Reilly is incredibly talented, but you have to say that players as tall as he is, it normally takes them a little longer to develop and succeed at the pro level,” Gimelstob said. “Because your weapons have to be so big and so developed, and you have to be able to hit through the incredible defense and movement from the smaller guys.”
Gimelstob also said one thing young pros have to get accustomed to is losing. After dominating at the younger levels, nearly everyone suffers some setbacks when starting on tour.
“The mental part of the game was the hardest for me; I lost more the first year on tour than I had my whole life combined,” Gimelstob said. For Opelka, “It could be a fun journey, but it’s not easy.”
For his part, Opelka said he’s fully prepared for the constant travel, laughing that he actually hasn’t played nearly as many junior events worldwide as other players.
He also said that “not having as many miles on me” will help, and he’s looking forward to the travel. He stressed that the schedule laid out by him and his coach, Diego Moyano, will be critical to his success in 2016.
It’s very important we schedule the right events, and figure out good blocks of time where I can be back in Boca training,” Opelka said. “As far as learning to be by myself, and eating in hotels and all that, I’m not that worried.”
Opelka, who has only played two tournaments in 2015 due to some nagging injuries, became animated when talking about what it means to perhaps be a pioneer for young tennis players in Palm Coast.
“It’s not a big town, and not many kids have come out and played pro tennis,” he said. “I mean, I haven’t done anything yet, but if I can max out my potential and be successful, and be the best player I can be, then maybe kids from Palm Coast can see what’s possible. It’d be pretty cool to make this town known for tennis.”
–Michael Lewis, Special to FlaglerLive
Follow Michael Lewis at Wide World of Stuff.