It was a basic question that elicited an usual response from former Palm Coast resident Reilly Opelka.
In early January, a week before he was scheduled to make the 24-hour flight to Melbourne, Australia, the ex-Indian Trails Middle School student, was asked about his excitement level when it came to flying Down Under for the upcoming Australian Open, which starts Monday (Feb. 8).
In normal times, tennis players respond with canned quotes about “can’t wait to get there!” and “looking forward to competing again!”
But we are in far from normal times.
“To be honest, I’m not one bit excited,” Opelka said in a conference call with reporters. “The rules they’ve put on us down there … it’s a crazy, crazy lockdown. But you know, that’s what needs to be done to put the tournament on, so that’s what we’re doing.”
What Opelka was talking about was not a lack of interest in getting back to tennis, the sport he loves and one in which he’s risen to No. 40 in the current world rankings. He’s one of only three Americans in the top-40, along with Taylor Fritz (30) and John Isner (24). Of course the 23-year-old wants to play and continue his rapid ascent.
No, what Opelka and many other tennis players were concerned about were the strict lockdown rules that Tennis Australia, the governing body of tennis in that country, had laid down for players like Opelka in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
For two weeks upon arriving Opelka and others entering the Australian Open would be confined to their hotel rooms, by themselves, for 19 hours a day, with only five hours a day allowed for practice, gym work, and work on their body. Australia had one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns in 2020, but the results were that it has basically eliminated the coronavirus, with only 52 active cases of the disease on Feb. 3. Flagler County got more than that on each of two separate days last week.
For the rest of us, that kind of strict isolation is something we’ve gotten used to. But for world-class athletes who need to be in peak physical and mental shape for a Grand Slam tournament, that kind of isolation can be difficult to deal with.
And for the 7-foot Opelka, who has suffered some sort of injury every year he’s been on the pro tour, access to his physio, Wolfgang Oswald, and coach, J-Y Aubone, are vital for preparation.
Right when he returned to competition following the Covid pause, in August last year, Opelka injured his left knee and was unable to finish off what would’ve been a first-round upset of Top-1o player David Goffin.
At the French Open in Paris in late September, Opelka’s right knee became the issue, and again he was compromised physically in a first-round loss to Jack Sock.
Opelka finished the abbreviated season strongly, reaching the quarterfinals at a tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia, beating world No. 6 Daniil Medvedev, but the right knee bothered him tremendously and he needed the full three-month offseason to get it right.
“I really needed the three months that I had off, and just rehabbing and getting stronger, because (the knee) was stubborn and took a while,” Opelka said. “My body has been a big issue, it hasn’t held up well throughout my career. So that’s kind of the million-dollar question for me, how it’s going to hold up in best-of-five, Grand lam matches. I’m confident that it will, but you never know.”
No one denies that Opelka, whose parents, George and Lynne, still live in Palm Coast, has the talent to be a Top-10 player one day, probably in the next two to three years, when he’s in his athletic prime.
But it’s his physical condition that has so far hampered him most in Grand Slam tournaments. To date his Wimbledon run in 2019, when he advanced to the third round, is his deepest success there.
So as Opelka said, the million-dollar question is, indeed, can he stay healthy?
“I think he’s ready to go,” Aubone said by email from Australia. “The whole time off at the end of 2020 was about getting his knee and body stronger; we’ve never had that much time off to get ready for a new season, and he crushed himself to get stronger.”
Aubone said that the biggest challenge was getting Opelka’s movement back, and working on every aspect of his mental and strategic game.
Aubone said the lockdown had been going better than expected, with players given enough time to get done everything they need.
But like Opelka, he admitted that until the Florida big man goes tbrough four or five best-of-five matches at a Slam, hopefully the Australian Open, we won’t know if Opelka’s body can handle the rigor.
Off the court, Opelka has been continuing his involvement with his hometown. He is a presenting sponsor of the Palm Coast Open, a minor league (“Futures”) tournament held at the Palm Coast Tennis Center each January, which this year is tentatively re-scheduled for the fall.
And last year he purchased 300 masks to be distributed at grocery stores in Flagler County to help keep people safe during the pandemic. Palm Coast spokesman Brad West said they’ve been very happy to have Opelka give back to the community, and hopes for more partnerships in the future.
For now, the winner of two career ATP Tour singles titles is hoping that his body holds up through whatever 2021 has to offer.
“I want to play each week at, you know, close to 100 percent,” he said. “I know it’s not realistic to be perfect, and feeling great all the time, but as close as I can to, that’s my main goal.”
The Australian Open can be seen on ESPN and Tennis Channel, beginning Sunday night at 7 p.m.