Bearded Reilly Opelka is US men’s tennis’ next great hope

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The USTA player development officials held another press conference Friday telling us to trust the process, baby steps are being made, and American men’s tennis is on the right track.

There are 14 American men in the top 100 — an increase of 120 percent from 2008. But in order for tennis to reach a new level of interest in the United States, an American male needs to trek to the second week of the U.S. Open, which starts Monday.

The newest big hope is a big man with a big Paul Bunyan beard — Reilly Opelka, the 6-foot-11 supersonic server who turned 24 on Saturday. The progress he has made in one year’s time has the USTA excited.

The bearded wonder’s highlight came when he advanced to the finals in the key Open tuneup in Toronto earlier this month. He’s got a seed here — 22nd — and a home crowd dying for an American man to light up Flushing Meadows.

Opelka tries not to put too much pressure on himself. In fact, he comes off as cautious, feeling he still could be a year away from a second-week run in a Grand Slam event.

“I’ve definitely grown a lot in the last year,’’ said Opelka, born in Michigan before moving to Florida. “It doesn’t mean I’m not expecting to showcase it all in one week. But it’s more than just four Grand Slams. I would love to carry my momentum through this week. But everyone’s tough here.’’

Reilly Opelka
Reilly Opelka

USTA coaches feel the only thing standing in the way of Opelka becoming a top-10 player is health. At his size, he’s more prone to leg injuries and was bothered by knee trouble at last year’s Open when he had a rough 1-2 punch of a draw in Fabio Fognini and David Goffin.

“One thing that’s nice is that I’m seeded this year,’’ Opelka said. “That makes a world of a difference. I’m definitely much further along from that, but I haven’t made a second week of a Slam. I’ve got to test my body to see what happens with four 3-out-of-5-set matches. That’s the only reason why I say I don’t know if I’m ready. I’m not being negative. I’m just being realistic.’’

The ride to Toronto’s finals was an indication he’s the real deal.

“It’s been great to see Reilly continue to progress,’’ USTA player development chief Martin Blackman said. “The finals in Canada was a huge breakthrough for him. He played a solid match against [Daniil] Medvedev [in the Finals]. He really made Medvedev work for it. We’re really optimistic about his development.’’

Blackman said he’s encouraged that Opelka is still climbing as he’s coached by Jay Berger, an ex-USTA coaching director and former top-10 player.

“In a year’s time, I’ve improved my serve, my forehand,’’ Opelka said. “Physically, I’m much stronger. Mentally, I think I’m a lot tougher. I would say it’s a night-and-day difference.’’

The men don’t have a player in the top 20, but there’s still imminent hope for Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz and Sebastian Korda, too. John Isner is the highest-ranked male at 21, but he’s winding down his career.

“I don’t ever want to kind of send a message we’re happy with the progress and we’re satisfied,’’ Blackman said. “But I think part of the message is that we’ve been focused on the process for the last 13 years. The trends that we’re seeing today are very positive — [but we’re] not taking any victory laps at all because we have a long way to go, especially on the men’s side.’’

Opelka won’t be hard to find on the grounds — with his height and mop of hair that he contains under his white hat. He faces Soonwoo Kwon of South Korea on Tuesday.

“Having fans back is a total delight, especially New Yorkers,’’ Opelka said. “What better fans to have for our first 100 percent go than the local New York crowd? That’s what makes the U.S. Open the U.S. Open. That’s why the Yankees are a legendary team, the Knicks as well. It’s the fan base, the culture of New York.’’


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