Before taking a final exam online later today—the 18 year old is still in school–Wimbledon champion Reilly Opelka made the rounds in the closest thing he has to a home town these days as Palm Coast finally got a chance to celebrate him in person after his best year on the tennis tour.
“We have lots of achievements in many areas, now we have added tennis,” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts said this morning as Opelka towered over him with his 6’11 frame, which earlier this month fired one of the fastest serves recorded at this year’s U.S. Open on either the men’s or junior circuits. It clocked in at 141 mph. In July he became the 11th American to win Wimbledon’s junior crown in seven decades.
“It was awesome for a couple of days, then it went back to reality,” is how Opelka described the experience. “I wasn’t going in there expecting to win, but it was definitely a possibility,” he’d said earlier on the radio.
Opelka, accompanied by his mother Lynne—she and her husband George live in Grand Haven—stopped in at WNZF for David Ayres’ Free For All Friday show just after 9 before heading to the Palm Coast Tennis Center, where Opelka accepted a congratulatory sign bearing the signatures of innumerable local supporters. The sign has been at the tennis center since Wimbledon. Opelka is rarely in town. He maintains a grueling playing and training schedule, with some 20 tournaments planned once the new season begins. When it does, Opelka will be playing exclusively on the professional circuit, hoping to break into the top league. His goal this year is to crack the top 300.
He’s risen this far this quickly (he’s ranked 5th worldwide on the junior circuit). It’s not a pipe dream so much as a realistic objective. It wasn’t that long ago that he started.
His first tennis lessons were in St. Joseph, Michigan, where his parents were living when he started playing tennis around 5. “We never really thought about it,” Lynne Opelka said on WNZF, referring to the initial impulse to enroll her son in tennis lessons. Grand slam championships were not in anybody’s thinking. Nor has Michigan been known to churn out tennis players. “There you get a lot of snow and things like that. My girlfriends and I were like hey, let’s put the boys in tennis lessons. So we started out in a little indoor South Shore club there. That’s where he took his first lesson. Then we moved into Grand Haven. So to meet other kids they had a little group lesson thing going on. We put both our kids in that. It was a way to meet other kids in the neighborhood, and Reilly seemed to love it.”
And that was that. He improved rapidly and got picked up by the United States Tennis Association in Boca Raton when he was 12. The family wasn’t thrilled about having him in dorms. So they rented a condo down there and commuted between Palm Coast and Boca Raton so he could focus on training—and keep in school through Florida Virtual School.
“The first four or five years there was definitely a good balance” between tennis and school, Opelka said. “The last year has been brutal as far as keeping up with it since I’ve been in France, in London, Spain, California throughout a four month period. I’m almost done. Actually I have one more final to take later today.”
Then it’ll be back to the daily training grind as Opelka eyes his next triumphs. He will, he said, be back to Palm Coast as a player during January’s Men’s Futures tournament.