NEW YORK — Just because he’s a giant doesn’t mean Reilly Opelka is boastful.
Not all physically-imposing people try to dominate and think so highly of themselves that their ego gets in the way.
The former Indian Trails Middle School student tries to dominate on the tennis court, of course, but off it he’s realistic and not anywhere close to being a braggart.
So when he was asked Monday, a few times, after his four-set loss to South Africa’s Lloyd Harris on Armstrong Stadium at the U.S. Open, if he thought thanks to his impressive run here he was getting closer to being able to compete for a Grand Slam title, he was blunt and self-effacing.
“No, no, I’m not there, I’m not close yet,” Opelka said after a frustrating day that saw his beloved serve desert him, while his opponent served like gangbusters. “Medvedev really beat me head to head,” he said of the world No. 2. “In a two-out-of-three set match, I didn’t have much of a chance, you know, three out of five, which I didn’t have much of a chance at the French Open with him. And then there is still another level above him, which is Novak. So no, I’m not close yet.”
Opelka continued to downplay his chances of winning a Grand Slam by saying that of all the young American male players, Jenson Brooksby and Sebastian Korda, not him, have the best chance. (Brooksby was up a set in his fourth-round match against Novak Djokovic, the world’s Number one player for the past six and a half years, but Djokovic had taken control of the second set by the time this article initially published.)
But his modesty may have been borne out of a little frustration at not seizing the opportunity he had Monday. Opelka reached the fourth round of a Slam for the first time here, but had a chance to go further against the No. 46-ranked Harris, who Opelka nipped in a tight three-setter in Toronto in August.
Monday’s scoreline, 6-7, 6-4, 6-1, 6-3 was a big surprise only in that Opelka had cruised through the first three rounds of the U.S. Open, not dropping a set.
After a first set that saw, for the fourth match in a row, Opelka go to a tiebreak and win it, Harris seized control. His serving was pinpoint and perfect, to the tune of 36 aces.
“It was difficult because he played a superb tie-break in the first set,” Harris told the ATP Tour’s Sam Jacot after the match. “I had to keep my head up as I knew I was playing well and at least I managed to turn it around. I tried to make as many returns as possible, which is not easy when the serves are coming at 135 mph. I just had to mix up my return position and it seemed like it paid off.”
After double-faulting three times to give Opelka a break late in the first set, Harris, a 24-year-old having a career year, was almost impossible to deal with. His service games in the final two sets flew by faster than a reality TV star’s career. Harris plays Germany’s Alexander Zverev, the fourth seed, in a quarterfinal match on Wednesday.
“He served great. He was the better server,” Opelka lamented. “Then with me not serving at a high percentage of first serves, he’s going to put a lot of balls in play, and just changes the whole dynamic of the match when I’m not serving great.
“That’s kind of what makes me so difficult and it really was off. Usually I can manage it better and make some adjustments throughout the match, which I was trying, but a little out of character for me to serve that poorly throughout the whole match, but he served great.”
Opelka’s first-serve percentage, normally in the low 70s when he’s playing well, was only 65 percent on Monday, and he won only 51 percent of his net points, below what he’d been doing at the tournament so far.
The match turned at 4-5 in the second set, when Harris broke Opelka’s serve to even the score at one set each.
Then to start the third set, Harris again broke the 7-foot Floridian, and then again at 3-0 to take command. The huge crowd on Armstrong tried to rally the American world No. 19 but Harris was too good.
Once Harris broke Opelka again to start the fourth set, the match was all but over, given how well Harris was serving.
“Yeah, it was an uncharacteristic serving day for me,” Opelka said. “That changed the whole thing. I mean, even if it was a characteristic serving day, I wasn’t going to break him much. He was serving unbelievable. You know, if things went great for me and I played well, we would have been in breakers. I don’t think there would have been any breaks.”
One of Opelka’s two coaches, former Top 20 pro Jay Berger, said he’d been very impressed with how his charge had competed at this Open.
“He’s handled the situation and the moment very well,” Berger said. “He’s showed a tremendous amount of maturity and he’s been having a lot of fun the past few weeks.
“He’s made good decisions on the court, and having the skills to execute those decisions, and he’s doing a great job on that,” Berger added.
With his U.S. Open now closed, Opelka did take a moment to reflect on the glorious tennis he played this summer, a stretch that zoomed him into the Top 20 and gave him new belief in himself.
“Yeah, it’s been a hell of a summer for me,” Opelka said. “Yeah, I learned a lot about myself this summer. I hope I can kind of just keep things rolling and just keep some of these lessons in the memory bank, especially today.
Asked what he’s learned, Opelka added: “I have learned how tough I can be to beat and how tough I can be to play, even when I’m not playing well. I learned I can win a lot of matches without serving great, without returning great.
“You know, obviously it’s not easy to win a match when you’re not returning serve on the same day, but I have expanded my kind of my toolbox to win, to beat some top guys, some unbelievable tennis players when I might have a part of my game that’s not firing.”
The loss stings Monday, but there’s no doubt the career needle is still very much pointing up for the kid from Palm Coast.
–Michael J. Lewis for FlaglerLive