The parallels between world #9 John Isner, last year a semifinalist at the All England Club, and his 21-year-old compatriot Reilly Opelka are fairly obvious at first glance. Both Isner, 6’10”, and Opelka, an inch taller still, tower above the majority of their opponents, even making the likes of Juan Martin del Potro, Marin Cilic and Milos Raonic look small. Unsurprisingly, both also have booming serves and thunderous forehands, that came them a danger to even the very best in the world.
It was perhaps fitting then, that Opelka should have twice beaten Isner in what feel like milestone weeks in his young career. First, he won his first Grand Slam match by defeating Isner in four sets, which all unsurprisingly went to tiebreaks, in the first round at Melbourne Park. Then, at the New York Open, he battled past Isner 6-7 7-6 7-6, saving six match points in a second set tiebreak that he eventually won 16-14, to reach his first tour-level final.
That left him facing fellow first-time finalist Brayden Schnur, who had started the week in the qualifiers before beating two seeds to reach the final. In fact, Schnur had never won a match on the main tour prior to the start of this week. In the early going, he looked overawed by the occasion and Opelka was not slow to take advantage. He broke twice to storm to the first set for the loss of just one game. But Schnur raised his level in the second to make a match of it.
Though he continued to struggle to make an impact against the Opelka serve, he began to serve more effectively himself, keeping the power of Opelka at bay. He forced a second set tiebreak and won it 9-7, after Opelka had double faulted up championship point, to send the match into a decider. Both men carried their dominance on serve from the second set into the third and, unsurprisingly, it too went to a tiebreak.
Opelka made a strong start and forced two more match points up 6-4, but could take neither. He had another up 7-6, but Schnur saved it. But then, when his own chance came, the qualifier blinked. Opelka correctly challenged a first-serve that had been called as an ace and Schnur’s rhythm was broken. He double-faulted to hand Opelka a sixth match point and this time the American made sure of it. He fired down his 43rd ace of the match, and 156th of the week, to claim a 6-1 6-7 7-6 win.
As his reward for joining the ranks of the tour-level champions, Opelka will climb to a career-high world #56, leaving him with a very real chance of breaking into the world’s top 50 in the very near future. And thereafter, who knows how high the young American could climb. But the achievements of John Isner, who has cracked the top ten and won the Miami Open in 2018, will surely be both an inspiration and a target to beat for Opelka.
He may well do it. From the evidence available, he looks to have a more-rounded game than Isner. Though he does not look comfortable at the net, a place Isner also rarely ventured early in his career, his forehand is almost the equal of Isner’s and his backhand is much better than the North Carolinian’s. Indeed, Opelka hit several very effective passes from that wing against Isner in their semifinal. He also moves well for a man of his size, though he struggles with short and low balls.
But he has already won three of his first top ten matches. Admittedly, the last two were against Isner and his first came against Jack Sock in Delray Beach in 2018, with Sock now residing outside the top 100 less than a year later. Opelka is certainly not ready to challenge the likes of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, who would surely have far too much craft and skill for the bruising young American. But he has shown this week that he is a danger to the rest.
He will certainly not be an opponent anyone relishes facing in Indian Wells and Miami, where the gritty, but high bouncing courts, favour big-servers such as Opelka and Isner. But with Opelka now likely to be a regular feature in main draws on tour, his is a challenge that his colleagues must begin preparing for as best as they can. Because the second coming of John Isner is here and he might just be even more dangerous than the first.
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