The biggest win of Reilly Opelka’s career came not thanks just to his enormous serving.
Nope, the 7-footer who was a former student at Indian Trails Middle School–and whose name will soon adorn the Palm Coast Tennis Center to mark his past and future ties with the city–used his movement and his return of serve to score an enormous victory over World No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas at the National Bank Open in Toronto Saturday.
After an incredibly tight first two sets that both ended in tiebreakers, the 23-year-old Opelka broke Tsitsipas’ serve at 3-all in the third set, then held his nerve the rest of the way to score a huge win, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4.
The victory catapults Opelka, up to a career high ranking of No. 23, into his first Masters 1000 final. He’ll play either his good friend and fellow American John Isner or World No.2 Daniil Medvedev in the finals on Sunday.
“It’s really exciting to be playing at a high level, and stacking these wins this week,” Opelka said on Friday after his quarterfinals win. “My forehand and my movement have gotten a lot better, just playing these high-level matches. Playing guys like Bautista Agut and Tsitsipas, it just makes me improve.
“Everything is improving in my game right now, and that’s what’s exciting.”
Opelka, who mocked his critics after his quarterfinal win over Roberto Bautista Agut Friday by writing “servebot” on the TV cameras after the match (he’s long heard from tennis fans who think that’s the only reason he wins), played a nearly-perfect semifinal against Tsitsipas, this year’s Roland Garros finalist.
After each player held serve throughout the first set, it was the Greek who scored a 7-2 tiebreak win and gaining the advantage.
The second set played out much the same way, with both players holding serve all the way to 6-all. But this time it was Opelka, who smacked 17 aces and made 72 percent of his first serves Saturday, getting the advantage midway through the breaker and holding on for a 7-4 edge.
The third set looked as it would also go the distance, as Opelka, who had to save a match point against him in the third round on Thursday, continued to dominate on his serve. Against one of the best players in the world Opelka faced only one break point in the whole match.
But instead of another tiebreaker, Opelka won four straight points on Tsitsipas’ serve at 3-all, then held his own serve to go up 5-3.
A few minutes later, a perfectly-placed serve down the middle on match point went unreturned, and Opelka broke out into a huge smile, wagging a finger at his coach, J-Y Aubone, and mouthing “How ’bout that?”
Opelka has now won five matches this week, including two over Top 20 players, and established himself as a threat to go far at the U.S. Open, which starts August 30.
“I want to be a Top 20 player and make runs at Slams, and keep being seeded, consistently,” Opelka said Friday. “I haven’t turned the corner to be there consistently yet, but I’m getting there.”
The final is at 4 p.m. Sunday on the Tennis Channel–too late for a watch party at the Palm Coast Community Center? (An earlier version of this article mistakenly reported a 1:30 p.m. start time. That’s the start of the channel’s coverage, not the match itself.)
–Michael Lewis for FlaglerLive