It has been a long time since an American dominated men’s tennis.
After the legendary Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, USA has not produced many top quality tennis players. Briefly, Andy Roddick promised to take up that heavy mantle but failed to do so apart from a glorious evening in SW19 that saw him lose a magnificent final set against Roger Federer 16-14 . Then the likes of Sam Querrey and John Isner came along with their booming serves but only flattered to deceive. But it seems like USA have found their new talisman in an 18-year-old boy named Reilly Opelka, who stands at an astonishing 7 ft.
Rise to prominence
Reilly Opelka shot to fame when he won the 2015 Wimbledon Junior title at the age of 17 (then standing 6ft 10 inches tall). The junior grand slam titles are often considered as yardsticks for identifying future champions but what caught the eye about Opelka was his assured gameplay and booming serves.
He was an unseeded junior going into the 2015 Wimbledon but managed to get the better of the top seed Taylor Fritz in the semifinals and went on to down the 12th seed in the final. He also turned pro last year and is currently ranked 879th in the world but not many are betting against the giant killer from breaking into the top-50 soon.
Opelka was born on August 28th , 1997 in Michigan but moved to Palm Coast in Florida at the age of 4.
A young Reilly took up tennis only for recreational purposes, and did not fully immerse himself into it until the age of 13. Even then, the turning point in his young career was when his father George met US Davis Cup team captain and United States Tennis Association (USTA) coach Tom Gullikson in a chance encounter on a golf course in Palm Coast.
Gullikson later took a liking to your Reilly and took him under his wings. Reilly says this about the Gullikson’s entry into his career, “My dad knew nothing about tennis and he ends up golfing with the Davis Cup captain and the US Olympic coach. Tom’s been just unbelievable to my whole family. He’s always stayed interested in me, my game.”
Strengths and Weaknesses
Reilly’s game is based on his big serves, which has sort of become a norm for upcoming American players ever since Andy Roddick. In fact, he hit the 134 mph mark during Wimbledon 2015 and hits the high 130s nowadays.
To put it in context, the fastest serve in Wimbledon 2016 was 146 mph (by Canada’s Milos Raonic).
Reilly also has a beast of a forehand that will help him end rallies quick. As with all tall players, his agility during rallies will be tested in the professional circuit more and more as he climbs the rungs of the game and that is an area he needs to improve. Though he has only played a handful of tournaments in 2015 due to injuries, he has certainly got the experts talking who see him as a likely future World No.1.
The 'Goliath' sized giant killer is part of a very talented group of American youngsters who are tipped to make it big in the game. USTA's General Manager Martin Blackman feels that the current crop that includes Reilly, Tommy Paul (2014 Wimbledon Junior champion) and Noah Rubin to name a few will announce themselves to Men’s tennis in 3-4 years.
Normally, world class players hit their strides in the mid-20s in Tennis and Reilly has time on his side to improve and become one of the best. Reilly is looking forward to travelling on the ATP tour and has been signed up the agency which represents Sam Querrey and John Isner.
He will only improve as he plays more matches on tour and gains experience. Provided all goes to plan, USA might just have found an heir to add to a long list of champion tennis players which included the likes of Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
For now, the teenager sure has one big record – he’s overtaken the big-serving Croat Ivo Karlovic as the tallest player in the ATP draw!