By Arthur Kapetanakis
Reilly Opelka is happy to be back in the United States, and it's already showing on the court. The 21-year-old Michigan native started the 2019 US Open Series with a semifinal run in Atlanta, and he's enjoyed some of the best results of his young career on his home turf, highlighted by his first ATP title at the New York Open in February. He now enters the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., with a career-high ranking of No. 43 after backing up his winter trophy with a consistent year on the ATP Tour—one year removed from toiling primarily on the Challenger circuit in 2018.
Ahead of his first match in D.C., Opelka spoke to USOpenSeries.com about his recent success, his tennis journey, the new generation of American talent and his goals for 2019.
USOpenSeries.com: You’ve just reached a new career high of No. 43, coming off couple of strong results at Wimbledon and in Atlanta… what is working so well for you at the moment?
Reilly Opelka: Mainly my serve, my serve’s been effective. It was really effective in Atlanta, especially. I thought I served well there, did a good job on the first ball as well. I also think I’ve been moving really well; I’ve improved my fitness and athleticism a lot, and I’ve been playing some good defense when I need to be.
USOpenSeries.com: You’ve had a lot of great results playing in the U.S., winning the New York Open in February and winning some Challengers in 2018. Now that you’re back playing in the States, what is it about playing in your home country that translates into such good tennis from you?
Reilly Opelka: Just from a comfort standpoint, I love being in the States. Here, we’re kind of spoiled. When I go to Europe, it’s a grind. It’s nice having WiFi here, being able to communicate with friends easier. It’s nice having AC in the hotel and ice. Just the quality of life is so much better, so generally I’m just a lot happier and it translates to my on-court performance a lot more.
USOpenSeries.com: As you were grinding on the Challenger Tour, when you had some injuries and were ranked in the 100s and low 200s, what was your mindset like at that time? Did you have any doubts about your ability to eventually make that jump into the Top 100, Top 50?
Reilly Opelka: No, I never doubted my ability or anything like that. My motivation was just... the Challenger events can be rough. It’s not a glamorous life at all. You’re playing some matches—some big matches, some important matches—with just a few people in the crowd. It’s tough, it’s a total grind. I was eager to get [onto the ATP Tour]. Part of that has served me well, as a way for me to be really motivated to make it to the Top 50 where I don’t have to play those events.
USOpenSeries.com: I understand you were the best man at Taylor Fritz’s wedding… what has it been like to share this recent ride of success with him, with you guys both getting into the Top 50 for the first time recently?
Reilly Opelka: It’s been really cool. We’re kind of in the middle of a little bit of a generation change. Obviously him and I are both playing well. It’s a combination of him and I improving and also the guys that have been at the top of the game for so long kind of starting to age for the first time. It’s been a combination of both things. We’re definitely improving, and it’s been fun just hanging out with him and having him as a friend on the road.
USOpenSeries.com: One of the guys who has been there for a while is John Isner. Of course it’s easy to compare you guys as Americans, with the height and the big serve. From your perspective, how much do you see him as a model for your game and what you can achieve?
Reilly Opelka: John’s done great things for the sport, and especially for American tennis. I don’t try to copy... I’ve definitely become my own player. Obviously there are similarities, just because of our size. But I think I’ve done a good job of becoming my own player, playing my own way and just improving based off my game.
But John’s been a great role model for all of us young guys. To see him competing, see how professional he is, see how he handles himself on court, off court everything. He’s a true professional and I think he’s been a great face for American tennis for the last 10 years.
USOpenSeries.com: Do you have any particular goals in mind for the US Open Series and US Open, and the rest of 2019?
Reilly Opelka: I don’t really put numbers or rankings or anything like that on the line, but my main goal is to have runs at the Slams. My main focus is the Grand Slams.
Obviously I love playing in the States, and these lead-up tournaments are so much fun, and I do think the conditions suit me well and I can have some success. But the US Open is my priority. I want to make sure I’m really well rested for that and prepared to hopefully have a long week there, a long two weeks.
USOpenSeries.com: Is there any particular result that you would be happy with at the Open?
Reilly Opelka: You never know. Most likely I’ll be unseeded. So I can play Djokovic first round. It’s hard to say. You could play anyone. That’s why it’s really hard to say I want to do this or this. A lot of it depends on the draw.
USOpenSeries.com: You’re not too far off getting that seed, hopefully sooner than later. And as far as your schedule, after the Citi Open, are you playing Rogers Cup then Cincinnati?
Reilly Opelka: Yeah, as of now that’s the plan. I think I’m in the qualies at Rogers Cup for now, so we’ll see how I do. I played a lot of matches last week and I’m a little tired right now, just physically a little drained. Like I said, I really want to prioritize the US Open. So I don’t want to be too tired for that. So I’m going to see how the body feels after this week and decide if I’m going to play Rogers Cup. But I’m definitely going to play Cincy and the US Open.