Since he was around 8 years old, Reilly Opelka has never had a problem with being motivated to smack a tennis ball.
But with nothing but endless days in front of him for months at a time while he and other professional tennis players waited for Covid-19 conditions to improve, he admitted that all the time alone and off the road dulled his senses.
“For a long while I wasn’t mentally sharp at all, because we had no idea when we’d get to play again,” Opelka said by phone on Monday, an hour after landing in New York City to finally resume life on the ATP pro tour. “I was just so not motivated, because we had no idea if we’d play again this year, or when. So I practiced but my head wasn’t in it until we really knew for sure we’d get to come back.”
The former Indian Trails Middle School student, whose parents George and Lynne still live in Flagler County, is ready to come back in a big way this week and for a few weeks going forward.
Now ranked No. 39 in the world, the 22-year-old hasn’t competed in a sanctioned event since March (he won a four-person Universal Tennis Rating event in May in West Palm Beach) but thanks to the crazy 2020 we’re all experiencing, he will be in New York for nearly four weeks while playing two tournaments back-to-back in the same location.
The Western and Southern Open, which for decades has been held in Cincinnati as the main U.S. Open warm-up event for men and women, is being held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York from Aug. 20-28. Three days after that wraps up, the U.S. Open kicks off with no spectators, fewer officials, and many fewer top players in both the men’s and women’s draws.
Big names like Rafael Nadal, Gael Monfils, and Simona Halep have all withdrawn due to Covid-19 travel concerns.
“I don’t think having fewer top guys in the tournament affects my expectations at all,” Opelka said. “I’ve never been past the third round of a Slam, and there are still a ton of amazing players in the draw, like (Dmitri) Medvedev, (Stefanos) Tsitsipas, (Dominic) Thiem. So I’m just going to hope to play good tennis.”
J-Y Aubone, who is one of Opelka’s two coaches (Jay Berger works with Opelka in Florida, while in a normal year Aubone travels to tournaments with him) said he’s seen vast improvement in Opelka’s game during the pause.
“Just having the ability to work on things for a long period of time in practice, his game has gotten so much better,” Aubone said. “His service return was the big thing we were looking to improve on (in 2020), and that’s gotten a lot better.”
The coronavirus pandemic has thankfully not affected Opelka or his family personally, and while some top pros like Novak Djokovic and Grigor Dimitrov tested positive, only one member of Opelka’s tennis inner circle has been affected.
Longtime friend and fellow Top 100 pro Frances Tiafoe was diagnosed with Covid-19 at an exhibition in Atlanta in July, but recovered quickly.
“With Frances, I had seen him once about a week before he tested positive, and I had two negative tests right after I found out about his test so I felt OK,” Opelka said. “I think it showed that no one else in our practice group in Florida got it, that we did a good job of staying away from each other.”
The U.S. Open has laid down strict bubble-like protocols for the Grand Slam event; as soon as Opelka landed he had to go straight to his hotel room and quarantine in the room for 24 hours. He’s going to be tested twice a week, and he and his coaches need to wear masks whenever they’re on the grounds.
The players have also been told, Opelka said, that if anyone violates the rules of leaving their hotel during the tournaments, they’re banned from this year’s AND next year’s U.S. Open.
“I’m honestly not worried at all about getting sick,” he said. “I have zero safety concerns. I think I have a better chance of dying on an airplane than (Covid-19). We’re all following the guidelines and doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
The sport will look different for a while: There will be fewer linespeople and ballpersons, and no spectators of course. But Opelka doesn’t see the coronavirus making any permanent changes to the sport.
“Maybe the ballkids bringing us towels will change, I think that was on its way out, anyway,” Opelka said. “But you need officials on the court, you need a lot of the things that aren’t going to be there for now. I don’t think the sport will change much.”
After the conclusion of the U.S. Open on Sept. 13, the plan for Opelka is to fly to Europe and compete in the French Open, normally held in May but scheduled to start on Sept. 27 in this crazy year.
“I’m super excited we actually have, like, a real schedule finally,” Opelka said. “We’re playing these two tournaments in New York, then onto the clay and Europe, then some indoor tournaments. It’s great I finally feel like (the ATP) has a direction.”
Aubone said it’s going to be very hard to put a lot of stock into the Open results, given how long everyone has been off.
“You have so many people who have gone so long without match conditions, that it’s going to be hard to judge how well anybody is playing,” Aubone said. “For Reilly, I think he’s in a really good place.”
While he hasn’t playing tournaments since March, Opelka has been speaking out more and more and finding his voice in the tennis world.
While he said that “only three people’s voices really matter in men’s tennis,” referring to Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer, Opelka gave a strong interview to Racquet magazine in May strongly criticizing the ATP leadership.
“The ATP? I think they couldn’t have handled it much worse,” Opelka said then. “We’re completely left in the dark, we don’t know what’s going on. And the execs haven’t taken pay cuts. ”
Opelka also criticized that it was up to the top players to create a Players Relief Fund, that saw players in the Top 100 pool money to give to struggling pros outside the Top 100.
“Players should never pay other players. But given the mess that we’re in, it seems necessary, it seems like it’s their only hope. So I somewhat support the Player Relief Fund.”
“I think I was just being honest, because there was no communication, no information at all given to us players,” Opelka said this week. “I told someone from the ATP after (that interview ran) and I said ‘I’m not trying to take shots at you all, I was just being honest.
“I mean,” Opelka continued, “I remember being at my first ATP players meeting at the U.S. Open five years ago, and we’re still talking about the same issues five years later and nothing is changing.”
Opelka said the rest of the sports world has been far ahead of tennis when it comes to dealing with Covid-19, and wonders why “everyone else came back before us, when we’re a pretty socially-distanced sport, standing 20 feet away from the person we’re playing. I don’t know why it took tennis so long to return.”
While Opelka has been off the tournament circuit, he’s been binge-ing TV shows like “Outer Banks” and visiting his local Wawa in Boca Raton to enjoy their milkshakes.
He has also been staying close to home and helping out his hometown area a little bit. He was a presenting sponsor at the Palm Coast Open in January, and in April he teamed up with California environmental clothing-maker Mulch to make and donate 500 masks to the city of Palm Coast.
But Opelka said no new partnerships or deals are on the horizon at the moment.
“The city has been great and super supportive of me, and I’m always staying looped in with what’s going on,” Opelka said. “I do see myself doing more and more with Palm Coast as time goes on, but right now there’s nothing new going on. Like everything else, things are kind of on hold.”
Except for pro tennis, which blissfully for Opelka, is finally back.
— Michael J. Lewis for FlaglerLive
If I had a nickel for every time Reilly asked me for advice on his game….. well I wouldn’t have any nickels.
Anyhow, GO GET EM OPELKA!!!!!!!!!!!!!