September 28, 2021

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Interview: Reilly Opelka on Isner, servebotting, big-man problems, pink tote bags, facial hair – and everything in between

(Photo by Tyler Anderson/Tennis Canada)

As American Reilly Opelka reaches the semifinals of the National Bank Open, he remains fairly unknown this week to most fans beyond the sport’s diehards.

So Open Court had the opportunity to chat with the 23-year-old about everything under the sun.

First, we wrote a piece for the Toronto Star about his victory over the extremely solid Roberto Bautista Agut in the quarterfinals Friday.

Notably, he signed the camera with the pejorative most often used to describe him.

(TennisTV)

If people thought, “Ahhh, finally, he’s admitting it”. It was a little sarcasm. But Opelka had no problem explaining the gesture.

Here’s that piece.

Much more ground to cover with the big man

But there was so much more to delve into than space allowed in the newspaper.

And so, here’s a one-on-one interview with Opelka after his general press.

Open Court didn’t hold back with the Qs. And Opelka was more than equal to the task with the As.

(The interview was lightly edited for clarity).

OC: How bad a case of COVID did you have (in April)? And how are you feeling any lasting effects, now a few months later?

RO: “It was a walk in the park. As soon as my quarantine protocol was over, I was on court, playing. I felt fine, literally the first day back, on court. I was pretty fortunate.”

Opelka (One bag, one pink tote bag – and the old junior trick of hooking your other racquets by the throat, through the handle of one of them. No room at the (racquet bag) inn. (Sportsnet)

OC: “What’s in that big tennis bag, if there’s no room for your rackets in there?

“I have two pairs of shoes that take up one compartment. And then I have all my my string and my grips, and my drinks on the other side. And six racquets don’t go have much more room elsewhere.

OC: Yeah, most guys are carrying two big bags onto court these days.

RO: Especially in the heat, you know, change their shoes, clothes, socks, hats …”

Opelka

Side by side at the US Open – Opelka as a junior, Isner as a younger man.

OC: “Do you remember the first time you heard the name ‘John Isner’,  the first time he came onto your radar, and when you met him for the first time?”

RO: “First time I saw him play he was he was young on Tour. I mean, I was a little guy – like eight or nine years old, or maybe 10. I was in Cincinnati, watching him play on the Grandstand court. He was just kind of coming to his own then. It was like the summer where he started to take off. Probably around 2006, 2007. That was the first time I’d ever watched him play.            

“I didn’t really meet him until I was like 15. I was there for the junior US Open and he was playing Monfils. And I warmed him up for that match.

Opelka

One guy he’s never faced who is much higher on Opelka’s bucket list is Roger Federer. Then again, everyone is higher on that list (Photo: Twitter)

OC: “Okay, so the follow up to that is: how old were you when you first rolled your eyes after you heard or read something that called you ‘the next John Isner”?

RO: “It’s a compliment. I mean, he’s been top 20 in the world for 10 years in a row. I’ve always taken that as a compliment. And he’s a super nice guy, and he’s one of the toughest competitors in the sport. There’s only been there’s been four active players that finished Top 20 for 10 years in a row. That’s insane, yeah.”

OC: “People will assume that you guys must be great friends because you’re both in some … “tall guys’ club”. or something. But there’s a fairly big age difference. Are you friends? Do you, like, exchange custom clothing store tips or anything like that?

RO: “We are friends. But he’s friendly with … you can’t really find anyone on Tour who’s not friendly with John. He’s just a well-respected guy in the locker room and amongst the other young Americans. He’s just super nice. It’s hard to find anything negative say about him. You know, he’s like, laid back. Really laid-back guy. He’s just friendly to all of us and then, you know, we watch him get on the court and he’s just a competitor.

“It’s a compliment”, Opelka says of the comparisons to John Isner.

OC: He just feels like a grown up to me, if that’s fair.

RO: “Yeah, I mean, he is. Even last week in Atlanta. His mom and dad are super nice. He’s got his wife, his two kids. His mom has their dog with them. He’s a huge animal lover. He loves his dogs. He’s just he’s a really likeable guy. He’s got no ego. I mean, you never hear him talking about how he’s been a top-20 guy.  

“He’s just a friend, just the guy that kind of been in all our corners. He was texting me the other night when Francis was playing Shapo. I always wonder how much tennis he watches, because he’s got two little kids and another one coming. I was kind of wondering like, how into it is he? And then, a text like that. “Big ‘Foe is on it right now!”. It’s just, it’s refreshing. 

Opelka (Photo by Tyler Anderson/Tennis Canada)

OC: “Why do you think you’ve had your way with him so far in your career? And who would win if and when you play on play? 

“If we both play well, it’s going to be 7-6, 6-7, 7-6. When I made the semis in Rome, I was asked, ‘Who do you think was the last American to make semis in Rome? And I was like, ‘Easy. Isner. He’s made the semis of everything. ‘ “

He’s good on (every surface). He’s a hell of a player. He doesn’t get the respect I think he deserves as as a tennis player. Like I said earlier, you’re not that good, that successful with only one shot. There’s more to it than that. You’ve gotta have more. These guys are so good. Every player in the top 50 is good, so it requires more than a serve to beat everyone like he does. He’s the real deal. 

“But yeah, it’d be three ‘breakers on any surface, if we’re playing well.”

Opelka Opelka on the Roland Garros terre battue vs. Jack Sock.

OC: Relatedly you’ve never faced Ivo Karlovic. Bucket list before he’s done? in Delray Beach, maybe?

RO: “No. I don’t want to play Karlovic (laughs). No, not on the bucket list. DEFINITELY not. I think Federer would skip the line on that one for the tennis bucket list. He gets priority over Ivo.” (Editor’s note: Opelka has yet to face either one).

The *intriguing* doubles partnership of Ivo Karlovic and John Isner lasted … one match, in Australia in 2008.

OC: “Speaking of speaking of which, I was I was one of the few people to watch live when Isner and Karlovic played doubles together in Australia against these two short Argentinian guys. 

RO: “Oh, that was awesome”.

OC: Given what a … disaster that was, is that the reason that the two (Opelka and Isner) of you have never teamed up just for giggles?

RO: “I mean, we both know it would be a disaster. I’d love to see it. But John and I joke– even even here, even in practice – like, who would pay to see that? We know it’s not the most appealing thing to watch us play tennis. We get that.”

Opelka says he and Isner will never team up for doubles. Because there’s … precedent.

OC: “What do you think is the biggest disadvantage that you have to overcome because of your height? Because people talk more about the advantages. It sounded like on the Zoom call that you acknowledge that there’s maybe a shorter shelf life for the big guys.”

RO: The disadvantage is the travel. The planes are rough. Jammed. Even at restaurants it’s brutal. Yeah, I think the whole travelling aspect can be can be really, really tough.

They do NOT make the courtside chairs for the big units, to say the least.

OC: “I see some of those on-court benches and the seats that are way too low. And basically you guys have your knees up to your ears, and it’s really ergonomically .. unsound to get up when your knees are higher than your hips. You know what I mean? 

RO: Yeah, exactly. There’s a lot of things kind of like that. Especially in Europe, you know, Little things like that are brutal.  

Opelka Opelka signs an autograph for a little rugrat at the Citi Open

OC: “Are you are you able to upgrade a whole lot more now than you were earlier in your career? And does that help?

RO: “Even earlier in my career I always did. I don’t have a choice. Literally, it’s not an option. It still doesn’t always help. Even in a lie-flat bed on the plane it’s still not the most comfortable. I’m still like, scrunched up somehow. But I mean, I’ve gotten used to it.”

OC: “Can you get your tennis kits your tennis clothes off the rack? Or do they have to be custom?

RO: “No, everything always custom.”

Opelka Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime is 6-foot-4. Just to show how MUCH more 6-foot-11 is – especially on a plane.

OC: How old were you when when it got to be a real challenge in that regard?

RO: “Luckily Nike when I was a junior, and when I turned pro, right away New Balance had to custom make everything. I’ve been fortunate that since I’ve kind of been playing, companies have always been able to get it done and cater to me.”

OC: Do you remember losing to Daniil Medvedev in the first round of the College Park (junior) tournament, as a wildcard (in 2013)? That was your first Junior tournament above a Grade 4. What do you remember about that one?

RO: “I sure do. I remember I kind of shouldn’t have won the first set, and then I did. Then I lost something like 1 and 2 (Editor’s note: he was bang on). We were on a pretty far back court there and yeah, I didn’t really know what to expect. As you said, it was one of my first higher level matches. 

He had the same backhand, I’ll tell you that. The same strokes. He’s always been unorthodox. He’s always been tricky.”

Opelka A clean-cut Opelka with his pal Taylor Fritz at the Citi Open a few years ago.

OC: Do you have any plans to lose that the caveman look, given the heat and humidity? It’s got to be pretty pretty ragged on you by now.

RO: “I’m used to it, to be honest. I think it’ll stick around for a little bit. Not forever, but it’ll stick around for some more time.”

OC: Okay, besides maybe winning the French Open in the Nadal era, what’s the accomplishment you’d be most shocked by in your career if you managed to do it?

RO: “Beating Novak in any Grand Slam. Yeah, I mean, that would be, I think, still the most shocking. Yeah, anyone beating Novak in a Slam is big.”

OC: And one final one. Do you get any b.s. in the locker room because of your pink tote bag? I wouldn’t mess with you personally. But is that tough?

RO: “No. People ask me about it, though. They kind of ask because I think it’s a space they know I’m into, that I’m intrigued with, is the art space. And it’s also a space not many kids my age, unfortunately, know a lot about. So I think they’re just curious about it. (Nick) Kyrgios actually loved it. Before we played, Kyrgios was saying how much he loves the pink. 

Opelka The pink tote bag is a conversation piece. It also has a history. (TennisTV)

“It stems from an artist called Franz West. He’s a legend. The art gallery that I’ve bought some of my art from, that is where that colour is built from. Franz West was a good friend of the guy who owns the gallery. His mom was a dentist, so the equipment that she made the dental pieces with was that pinkish colour. So all of his sculptures, that specific pink was what he he used, what he worked with to make his art.

“And so that that pink kind of stuck around. And that’s why that’s why it’s that specific shade of pink, because of  Franz West.”

OC: Hey, listen,  if you’re spreading art appreciation around the locker room, you’re doing something good. 

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