My Tennis Channel colleague, Martina Navratilova, once explained to me a simple premise about professional tennis. At the lower levels of the game, said Martina, the telling factor is skill and technique. Examples abound at many a club, park or tennis facility. Take, for instance, the case of an 80-pound ten-year-old who can hit the ball harder than a 35-year-old former college football player.
But it’s very different at the world class level. As Martina noted, by that stage, everyone has significant command of technique. And hence - particularly true in today’s tennis world - the application of this principle: You can’t teach height.
Which leads us to Reilly Opelka, a 19-year-old American who stands an inch shy of seven feet tall. A year ago Opelka was ranked 1022 in the world. Aided most of all by a semifinal run last summer in Atlanta - highlighted by wins over veterans Kevin Anderson and Donald Young - Opelka has now soared to 182.
As you’d expect, Opelka has a tremendous serve and strikes his forehand big too. Those two assets, along with his height and subdued manner, have naturally earned Opelka comparisons to John Isner. But last fall, as the two practiced together, Isner told Tennis Channel that Opelka at this age is far more skilled than he was at that stage of his career. For example, Opelka has much better volley technique than a great many contemporary players.
His 2017 journey has been typical for a player still seeking a double-digit ranking. It began with a third-set tiebreaker loss to 873th-ranked Harry Bouchier at a Challenger event in Australia. But then, in the Australian Open qualifying, Opelka won three matches without the loss of a set to earn his way into the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time. Up against 11th-ranked David Goffin, Opelka extended the skilled Belgian to a fifth set, losing it 6-4.
Immediately after the Australian, he went off to another Challenger, the RBC Tennis Championships of Dallas, where Opelka lost to 137th-ranked Rajeev Ram, 7-6, 7-6. This week, Opelka is competing at the KPSF Open, a Challenger tournament in San Francisco. As he seeks to make his way up the ranks, Opelka is well aware that there are no shortcuts.