Reilly Opelka’s first Challenger title the result of a long road to recovery
It’s not too often on the tennis circuit that a teenager wins a Challenger title, though it has become more common in recent years. Yet less common is when that teenager has endured as torrid an injury-stricken professional career as Reilly Opelka has had to endure.
Opelka won his first Challenger title on Sunday in Charlottesville, defeating Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium, a former Davis Cup finalist, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6. It was a tough match for the nineteen year-old, who was blown away by his more experienced opponent in the second set, broken twice and barely winning any points against Bemelmans’ serve.
Opelka recovered to play a tighter final set, saving the single break point of the set, before playing lights-out tennis in the tie-break, winning the single point against serve to win seven-five.
— C-Ville Challenger (@CMPChallenger) November 6, 2016
Above: Opelka celebrating his inaugural Challenger title in Charlottesville.
His career has not been smooth sailing however. After winning the Junior Wimbledon Singles title in 2015, Opelka’s injury troubles hit, with a stress fracture in his foot causing him to miss a chunk of the late 2015 and early 2016 seasons. Even on his return things were not easy. After his return to the Futures circuit in February he won back-to-back matches only once in his first nine events (this run coming in qualifying for the ATP event in Houston, d.Novikov, d. Barton).
However, in August his season took off. Just a week after losing in the final round of qualifying for a Challenger Opelka tore through the Atlanta Open, defeating Christopher Eubanks, Kevin Anderson and Donald Young en route to his first ATP semi-final. He was toppled by one of the few man who stand in comparable height to him in John Isner (The ATP now lists Opelka at 6’11, taller than Isner). His season continued to improve, scoring wins against ATP veterans in Jeremy Chardy and Eduard Roger-Vasselin in back-to-back events.
His run last week saw him edge fellow American junior talent Michael Mmoh, defeat Denis Kudla in straight sets and then defeat a man who this time last year was preparing to face Andy Murray in the Davis Cup final. His title win in Charlottesville sees him take a ranking just outside the Top 200, though due the USTA’s reciprocal agreement with their Australian counterparts, Opelka is well placed to earn a direct main draw wildcard as a result of his performances this week, likely avoiding a qualifying draw that his new ranking would have helped him gain entry into.
Given his youth and marked lack of playing time, it is hard to gauge Opelka’s future. However, there are one or two signs that he could follow fellow American John Isner into the Top 10 one day. Opelka has displayed an ability to break serve, even against other top servers. In Atlanta he was 5-3 down in the final set against Kevin Anderson, only to earn two consecutive breaks and the win. Though Anderson helped Opelka’s cause that day with an uncharacteristic number of double-faults, the young American refused to crumble when others may have succumbed to the big server trying to close out the match.
Other situations include one that he again demonstrated this week. John Isner and Ivo Karlovic are amongst the most adept at winning tie-breaks, and Opelka has shown an aptitude for similar feats. The final set against Bemelmans saw Opelka win just four points against serve, and lose more than half his second serve points on the way to the tie-break. Once there however, he dropped no points on serve and took the crucial mini-break to secure an unlikely victory. He also secured a tie=break set win against John Isner in his eventual three-set defeat in the Atlanta semi-finals.
Opelka looks to have recovered from the tough start to his career, and with a likely wildcard into the Australian Open beckoning, it looks as things are finally looking up for the young serving prodigy.
Highlights of Opelka’s win over Ruben Bemelmans in Charlottesville.
The Story Of Indian Wells 2023
At this same time of the year in 2022, Carlos Alcaraz announced to the tennis community that he was ready to propel himself into the forefront of the sport. He reached the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells before losing to countryman Rafael Nadal amidst almost impossibly windy conditions in the California dessert. Although Alcaraz had already reached the quarterfinals of the 2021 U.S. Open, the stellar Indian Wells showing last year propelled him to another level.
In short order, Alcaraz won his first Masters 1000 title in Miami, captured another of those elite crowns in Madrid, and, at the end of last summer, took the U.S. Open title in New York. With that breakthrough triumph at a major, Alcaraz went to No. 1 in the world, and he concluded the season still stationed at the very top of tennis. He has been hobbled by injuries too often since last November and consequentially missed the Australian Open, but now this 19-year-old sensation is back on top of the world at No. 1 following a 6-3, 6-2 final round victory over Daniil Medvedev in the final at Indian Wells.
That was no mean feat for this strikingly mature champion. He is the youngest man ever to secure both the Miami and Indian Wells titles. Not since Roger Federer in 2017 had a male player taken this prestigious crown without losing a set. Medvedev was enjoying the second longest winning streak of his career of 19 match victories in a row. He was striving for a fourth consecutive ATP Tour title in a debilitating five-week span. He had seemingly almost forgotten how to lose after finding his form in Rotterdam in mid-February. He won there by toppling Jannik Sinner in the final. On he went to Doha, where he stopped Andy Murray in the final. The following week in Dubai, Medvedev ended a four match losing streak against Novak Djokovic with a 6-4, 6-4 semifinal win and then obliterated countryman Andrey Rublev 6-2, 6-2 in the title round.
Medvedev’s form fluctuated at Indian Wells but he seemed to be progressing as he headed into the final. But he had faced Alcaraz only once before. That was in 2021 at Wimbledon and Medvedev came through easily when Alcaraz was not the same player. So this collision at Indian Wells in the final was going to be revealing one way or another for two great players who figure to meet many more times on big occasions in the years ahead.
Some authorities believed Medvedev would exploit his experience, maintain his winning streak, and add another title to his collection. Of the 18 tournaments Medvedev has amassed starting in 2018, all but one have been on hard courts. But seldom has he been beaten as soundly as was by Alcaraz at Indian Wells. The Spaniard put 76% of his first serves in play compared to 65% for Medvedev. Alcaraz won 81% of his first serves points while Medvedev finished 20% behind his opponent in that department. Meanwhile, Alcaraz secured 58% of his second serve points and Medvedev finished well below that mark at 41%. Not once did Medvedev even reach break point. That is a rarity.
The humiliation for Medvedev transcended those facts. Time and again, Alcaraz set the tactical agenda. He caught Medvedev off guard with selective serve-and-volley combinations. He used the drop shot magnificently. He went for his shots freely and stayed away from the rhythmic long rallies on which Medvedev feasts. He kept Medvedev guessing for 70 painful minutes. For his part, Medvedev inexplicably attempted to match or surpass the Spaniard’s backcourt pace. He pressed off both sides. His forehand was well below par. And when Medvedev had the chance to prolong rallies and play more on his own terms, he impatiently went for bigger shots which backfired almost completely. His mind was muddled. Essentially and surprisingly, Medvedev was not ready to fight with his usual ferocity. He collapsed against an unrelenting Alcaraz.
Alcaraz was primed from the outset. He raced to 3-0 in the opening set, sweeping 12 of 15 points on the process. Medvedev professionally started imposing himself and held serve three times after falling behind. In his last two service games he conceded only one point as he located his delivery more accurately. But Alcaraz was unswerving on his own delivery, winning 20 of 26 points in five service games. Serving for the set at 5-3, he held comfortably at 15, closing out that game by serve-volleying on the last two points.
Medvedev had seemingly found his bearings after a slow start, but Alcaraz pounced in the opening game of the second set and broke his dispirited opponent at love. Medvedev gave that game away with two unforced errors off the ground, an errant backhand volley and a double fault. Alcaraz swiftly held at love and moved ahead 0-30 on Medvedev’s serve in the third game. He had won ten points in a row.
Alcaraz went on to break Medvedev again for 3-0 and surged to 4-0 with another routine hold. It had taken him only 17 minutes to build that second set lead. The rest was a formality. Alcaraz closed out the account without stress despite being taken to deuce when he served for the match at 5-2.
That it all came down to a duel between Alcaraz and Medvedev— the last two U.S. Open champions—for the first Masters 1000 crown of 2023 made perfect sense. As an unvaccinated player, Novak Djokovic was not permitted to enter the United States to compete at Indian Wells and Miami. Rafael Nadal—three time champion at Indian Wells and runner-up to Taylor Fritz a year ago—was not ready to return to the ATP Tour after his latest injury that led to a second round loss at the Australian Open.
With the two icons absent, the cognoscenti of tennis hoped for an enticing final round confrontation between Alcaraz and Medvedev. The match did not come even close to delivering on its considerable promise, but the fact remained that they both deserved to be there. The beguiling Spaniard took apart the Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-2, 6-3 in the second round, ousted the tall Dutchman Tallon Griekspoor 7-6 (4), 6-3 in the third round, and then needed less than 47 minutes to defeat an ailing Jack Draper of Great Britain. Alcaraz led 6-2, 2-0 in that clash when the left-hander was forced to retire.
Alcaraz was rolling now. He had lost all three of his previous appointments against the charismatic Felix Auger-Aliassime, who had improbably erased six match points against him in a round of 16 win over Tommy Paul. But this time around against FAA, Alcaraz was exhilarated under the lights and he came through comfortably 6-4, 6-4. The serving statistics from this encounter are telling. Alcaraz won 81% of his first serve points, which was 11% better than the Canadian. The Spaniard took a respectable 59% of his second serve points, while Auger-Aliassime stood far below at 42%.
Alcaraz was the superior performer across the board during this quarterfinal encounter. He was sounder and cagier, quicker and sprightlier. His return was first rate across the two sets, and he backed up his own delivery with uncanny efficiency. It was a confidence building triumph in every respect, and just what he needed as he headed into the semifinals to take on Jannik Sinner.
The Italian had overcome the defending champion Fritz in a sparkling quarterfinal skirmish lasting three absorbing sets. Sinner blasted away spectacularly against the Californian and he had the upper hand in the vast majority of long rallies contested on an exceedingly windy night.
Sinner is industrious, unwavering and often enterprising. He had been victorious in two of his four showdowns with Alcaraz, prevailing in a memorable four set, round of 16 clash on the Centre Court at Wimbledon last year before losing what may well have been the best tennis match in all of 2022 at the U.S. Open. In that quarterfinal confrontation under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Sinner had a match point in the fourth set of a pendulum swinging contest before Alcaraz rallied again from a break down to take the fifth set and prevail 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-7 (0), 7-5, 6-3 in five hours and fifteen minutes of spellbinding tennis.
No wonder so many learned observers were looking forward to the fifth career collision between two players who will surely be taking prestigious prizes away from each other for the next decade. Alcaraz moved out in front 4-2 before Sinner took eleven points in a row (and 12 of 14) on his way to a 5-4 lead. Sinner needed that first set more than Alcaraz. The Italian reached 15-30 in the tenth game but narrowly missed a return. Alcaraz held on for 5-5 but soon faced a set point in the twelfth game. Sinner was right where he wanted to be, on the edge of a first set victory.
But Alcaraz is frequently at his best when faced with the sternest of challenges. He took a short blocked return from Sinner and released one of his patented drop shots. Sinner chased it down, but his passing shot was much too high. Alcaraz moved easily to his right and punched a forehand volley winner into the open court. The set would be settled in a tie-break, and Alcaraz was too good, breaking a 4-4 deadlock by sweeping three points in a row, sealing that sequence 7-4 with a scorching flat backhand winner crosscourt. Alcaraz made one break count in the second set and succeeded 7-6 (4), 6-3. It was a remarkable performance highlighting Alcaraz’s match playing acumen.
As for Medvedev, making it to the final was a much tougher task. He handled Brandon Nakashima 6-4, 6-3 in the second round, although the match was more competitive than the score would indicate. Then he overcame Ilya Ivashka 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 to reach the round of 16 and an eagerly awaited clash with Sascha Zverev.
Zverev has had a difficult time rediscovering the heights of his game after missing the second half of 2022 following the abysmal ankle injury he suffered against Nadal in the semifinals of Roland Garros. But he had started playing better tennis in Dubai a few weeks back before losing a semifinal to Andrey Rublev. Zverev largely outplayed Medvedev at Indian Wells but, three times over the course of the match, he squandered 0-40 openings. He also missed out on 15 of 17 break point opportunities.
On top of all that, Medvedev rolled his ankle in the middle of the second set and needed the trainer. Somehow he survived despite the injury, winning 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-5 despite getting broken at 5-4 in the final set when he served for the match the first time. Zverev then played horrendously at 5-5, double faulting on break point. Medvedev escaped.
He remained concerned about the ankle in the quarterfinals against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, and fell again, cutting his thumb in the process. Nevertheless, he got the win 7-5, 6-3. Two days off helped his cause considerably, and Medvedev looked fine physically on all fronts during his semifinal against Frances Tiafoe.
In fact, Medvedev was near the top of his game in establishing a 7-5, 5-3 lead. Seldom if ever has he produced so many breathtaking forehand passing shots, and, in turn, he was hardly missing from the baseline. But Tiafoe is doubly dangerous when he is behind, as he demonstrated so boldly last year in the U.S. Open semifinals against Alcaraz when he got up off the canvas after looking down and out to force a fifth set.
In this case, Tiafoe serve-volleyed his way out of two match points in the ninth game of the second set, and saved a third by provoking a forehand error on the stretch from Medvedev. Medvedev could not serve out the match at 5-4 but he broke right back at love in the eleventh game and served for the match a second time at 6-5. He reached 40-0 but Tiafoe erased four more match points in that astounding game. On they went to a tie-break, but an unruffled Medvedev did not fret. He took that sequence seven points to four, concluding the contest with a service winner and an ace. Medvedev was deservedly victorious 7-5, 7-6 (4). Not until he captured that match was his head cleared and his outlook altered. In the middle of the tournament, the 27-year-old was complaining vocally about the conditions, claiming that the slow conditions were not really hard court tennis as he knew it. That was a simple case of Medvedev irrationality.
A day later, Medvedev was trounced by a top of the line Alcaraz. He took the defeat graciously, recognizing that he had hit a physical and emotional wall after so much success in recent weeks. He also realized that Alcaraz had played a magnificent match. The Spaniard will be buoyed by the victory and confident that he has all the tools to confront Medvedev in the years to come. But Medvedev is a very studious fellow who will go back to the drawing board and examine what it will take to unsettle a surging Alcaraz the next time they meet.
Despite the setback, Medvedev has moved back to No. 5 in the world. It won’t be long before he finds himself in the top three, right up there with the pace setters Alcaraz and Djokovic. They are clearly the three best players in the world right now. It will be fascinating to follow their exploits. Djokovic, of course, was easily the best in the game across the second half of 2022 from Wimbledon on. He then opened his 2023 campaign by winning a tenth Australian Open and a 22nd major in the process. After his loss to Medvedev in the Dubai semifinals, the Serbian has been unable to play. That clearly contributed to Alcaraz regaining the top spot in the ATP Rankings, although the Spaniard must hold onto his crown in Miami to prevent Djokovic from taking back the No. 1 ranking.
A revitalized Djokovic will surely return at full force on the clay starting in Monte Carlo and perform purposefully as he chases a third French Open crown. Medvedev will need to prove that he can raise his clay court standards from years gone by. Alcaraz is riding high right now and will be tough to beat as he defends his crown in Miami. I expect him to realize that feat.
All signs point to some gripping battles between Djokovic and Alcaraz on the clay in Europe. If Nadal is healthy, he will be right there with them vying for the titles on the dirt. He will be determined to play his typical brand of unimaginably effective and inspiring clay court tennis. We are in for some astonishing matches in the coming weeks among these top players.
But, for a few days at least, Carlos Alcaraz should celebrate one of the best weeks of his young career at Indian Wells, and try to appreciate how well he is playing before he shifts his attention to winning again in Miami and pursing other primary targets. He owes it to himself to briefly but completely enjoy his latest triumph as much as possible. I suspect he will do just that.
Novak Djokovic’s Moment Too Big For Tsitsipas
Perhaps, it was too much for Stefanos Tsitsipas to think about achieving in one day. That’s beating Novak Djokovic and winning his own initial Grand Slam title, not even to think about the bonus part of the package — becoming the No. 1 player in the world.
At any rate, it obviously wasn’t meant to be for Tsitsipas to derail Djokovic.
Djokovic accomplished it all in one neat package. Say hello to the player many tennis experts are now calling the greatest player ever. Of course, that’s a little premature due to the fact Rafa Nadal was all alone with 22 Grand Slam titles before Djokovic matched the total on Sunday by winning the Australian Open’s men’s singles title.
FORGET THE GOAT TALK
Then, there’s the great Roger Federer, in reality, possibly the greatest player who ever lived.
So, forget GOAT. It doesn’t matter, whether Nadal or Djokovic wins another Grand Slam title.
Poor Federer. He’s probably home with his children laughing about all of this.
And Rod Laver? Of course, Laver was on hand to watch Djokovic’s superhuman effort.
Back to reality. The moment.
Djokovic lived there Sunday night.
THE MOMENT WAS TOO MUCH FOR TSITSIPAS
Tsitsipas wasn’t ready for the challenge. Djokovic certainly was.
It’s as simple as that.
Novak played great. Tsitsipas didn’t give himself a chance to win.
Djokovic stayed in the moment. Tsitsipas allowed the situation to take over his game and apparently his mind.
Tsitsipas must have been back home in Greece where he would be crowned if he could be No. 1 in the world and win a Grand Slam.
NEAR-PERFECT NOVAK A LEGEND
Tsitsipas had his chances, even though he was down 4-1 in the first set before you could blink an eye.
He actually was two points from winning the second set in regulation, then quickly fell behind, 4-1, in the tiebreaker.
Tsitsipas took the third set to another tiebreaker, but lost the first five points and then lost the match, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5).
He never seemed to be keyed into the match, repeatedly miss-hitting key shots, even to open courts.
Meanwhile, Djokovic was near-perfect. He surely is a great one, a legend.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
Novak Djokovic Saves The Day In This Australian Open
It’s a good thing the Aussies allowed Novak Djokovic to stay in Melbourne this year.
Otherwise, the young crowd of players might have taken over completely in this Australian Open. After all, Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray, Daniil Medvedev and Iga Swiatek among others didn’t stick around very long.
Novak is saving the day Down Under for the great ones.
This is an Australian Open unlike any in recent years. It’s almost like the Australian Open, with its usual midnight to early-morning Eastern Time matches has taken a step backward in world tennis.
American fans apparently no longer can watch those great matches that start at 3 a.m. or 4:30 a.m. ET, except on ESPN+.
AUSTRALIAN OPEN LOST IN THE SHUFFLE
This Australian Open appears to be kind of lost in the shuffle this January, virtually taking away its major status.
In the absence of those early-morning battles, I guess it’s okay that most of the top men and women other than Novak, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Tommy Paul, Elena Rybakina and Jessie Pegula have sang their Aussie songs and headed elsewhere, except maybe for doubles.
Don’t overlook the tall Russian Rybakina on the women’s side. She’s two wins away from her second Grand Slam title, having upended the top-ranked Swiatek in the round of 16 and then taking care of former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the quarterfinals.
ALMOST LIKE A COLLEGE EVENT
Ben Shelton and J.J. Wolf are certainly outstanding American college level talents that came racing out of the winter red-hot.
But like MacKenzie McDonald, who thrashed an unprepared Nadal with a college-like all-power game only to falter the next round against a journeyman player like Yoshihito Nishioka, it’s doubtful that either Shelton or Wolf can stand the test of the only great one left — Djokovic.
In the long run, Shelton especially and Wolf likely will be stars. But these newcomers aren’t likely to hit the tour with the greatness that Carlos Alcaraz displayed when he was healthy during the last half of 2022.
WATCH FOR THE OTHER STARS AFTER AUSTRALIA
Other stars from last year such as Jannik Sinner, Cameron Norrie, Casper Ruud, Matteo Berrettini, Nick Kyrgios, Denis Shapovalov, Alexander Zverev and Felix Auger-Aliassime will make their own noise once the tour hits Europe and America.
As far as Americans other than Paul, I like the looks of young Jenson Brooksby, who upended the second-ranked Ruud in the second round. The 22-year-old Brooksby looks like a future star, that is if he gets in better physical condition.
Thus, Novak appears to be an almost certainty to sweep to his 22nd major title in an event that has been his own private playground for much of his career. That shouldn’t change on Sunday in the Australian Open final.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
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