Reilly Opelka's first Challenger title the result of a long road to recovery - UBITENNIS
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Reilly Opelka’s first Challenger title the result of a long road to recovery

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Opelka is making a name for himself after a foot injury delayed his young career (image via zimbio.com)

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.

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dq9F2xiJC0s

Highlights of Opelka’s win over Ruben Bemelmans in Charlottesville.

ATP

Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic’s Big Four reunion in Cincy

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ATP Cincinnati, Andy Murray, Western and Southern Open
Photo Credit: Western and Southern Open Twitter

A few years before, there existed a quartet called Big Four in men’s tennis. At certain points in their time-line of dominance, injuries plagued each member of this four-member group. However, the severity of their affliction in one player, Andy Murray, saw his name erased from this elite pocket. Thus, the Big Four was reduced to the Big Three with Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer making up the troika.

 

At the 2019 Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, three of the erstwhile Big Four troupe reunited as they re-entered the circuit’s circus. And each player had a different path leading up to the event, too, underlining how divergent their careers had become despite overlapping scheduling.

The 2016 season was the common catalyst leading to this divergence. From Federer’s injury to him pausing his season to focus on rehab after Wimbledon, to Djokovic pushing his boundary as a marauder and completing the non-calendar Slam, and to Murray ending the season as the world no. 1. The year in consideration also threw up other names – Nadal’s season ended in an agony of injury, while Stan Wawrinka won his third Major at the US Open. In its bounty of giving and taking, 2016 changed how we looked at these players – especially the first four – and the irrevocability of assumption that these guys could get past any hurdles stopping their way.

Juxtaposing with Cincinnati, in the three years since 2016, Federer and Djokovic have vaulted past their share of physical problems. Yet, in the Ohioan city, they have different motivations guiding them. This is the first time that Djokovic has entered the Cincinnati draw as the defending champion. Meanwhile, after having been drawn in the same half as the Serbian, Federer has the proverbial score to settle against him. “I can’t wait for my next rematch with Novak or my next time I can step on a match court and show what I can do,” the 20-time Slam champion said in one of his pre-tournament media interactions in Cincinnati.

There are a few opponents to get past before their slated semi-final meeting occurs. Nonetheless, their sustained competitiveness adds its fervour to the already-hefty top-half of the men’s draw. In the midst of their respectively successful opening rounds, Murray’s first-round defeat to Richard Gasquet in straight sets became a contextual misnomer for comebacks.

Yet, Murray’s was the most stirring return. This was not because of the emotional crossroads that had sprung up at the 2019 Australian Open regarding his retirement. But on account of how farther Murray had leapt to put his physical frailties behind and re-join the singles Tour. And, the Briton’s determination to do so is reminiscent of 2016, all over again. It’s the completion of the circle of how Murray had pushed hard to become the world’s best player and now, he is trying just as much to regain his footing back.

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ATP

Nick Kyrgios’ Washington win is about good vs bad: Of situations and opinions

The Australian’s Citi Open win brought forth a wave of positiveness about him. But its enduring or lack thereof is a test for his viewers, hereon.

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Nick Kyrgios
Photo Credit: Citi Open

Nick Kyrgios picked up two titles in 2019 – in Acapulco and Washington – in the time it took opinion to swing between “He is not good for tennis” to “Tennis needs him”. And, in the days after his win at the 2019 Citi Open in the latter city, the subject continues to be a favoured topic of editorial conversation vis-à-vis his importance to the sport.

 

The player in question though does not care for any of these. Yes, after his win in the Washington final against Daniil Medvedev, Kyrgios admitted, “I’ve just been working really hard, on and off the court, to try and be better as a person and as a tennis player. And as I said, I wasn’t exaggerating. This has been one of the best weeks of my life, not just on the court but in general. I feel like I’ve made major strides.” But this came with an addendum of sorts. “And I’m just going to take it one day at a time and hopefully, I can continue on this new path.”

As Kyrgios heads into the Rogers Cup in Montreal, these words need to be stamped onto onlookers’ minds, with their significance getting highlighted each time he steps on to the court, hereafter. Especially, when describing his antics that often tend to be over-the-top.

This past week in Washington, Kyrgios came up with some idiosyncratic behaviour. He shimmied, he put himself in the shoes of the prince while conjuring up an image of Stefanos Tsitsipas as Cinderella, and he asked fans for their opinions about which way to serve on match points, following that with heartfelt hugs after winning the match. All of these were endearing gestures with their enjoyableness magnified by his run of triumph thereby leading to thoughts of why Kyrgios was so important to tennis.

Had these same actions come before a result – in any round – that had not gone in his favour? It is not hard to say, after observing past trends that the reactions would have been about how Kyrgios had disrespected the sport and how he did not do much with the potential he has been gifted. The opinions would have changed that quickly.

It is because of these that the Washington result comes as a timely reality-check monitor. That instead of analysing Kyrgios’ every move, both tactical and non-tactical, the world at large needs to just view him as part of the whole of tennisdom. He is like the others who have taken up tennis professionally. But if his route on the Tour is to be measured by others’ straight-line standards, then, he is not the guy to follow that precedent.

And, why should he? Kyrgios is the way he wants to be, not the way people think he should be. Moreover, if it is that easy to accept him as he is when he wins not being able to accept Kyrgios for who he is when he loses is not his lookout. It’s the viewers who need to pore over their preferences.

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Cori Gauff: The Finest Example Of The Williams Sisters Legacy At Wimbledon

$1 million in endorsements and a win over Venus before her 16th birthday. America has a new sporting sensation on the horizon.

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photo by Roberto Dell'Olivo

WIMBLEDON: A star was born at the All England Club on Monday as the latest teenage talent sent soundwaves around the women’s circuit.

 

Just over a week ago 15-year-old Cori Gauff found out that she has received a wild card to play in this year’s Wimbledon qualifying tournament. Battling through three rounds, she reached her first main draw at a major. The youngest player in the Open Era to have ever done that. Little did the public know at the time, that was only the start.

Taking to Court 1, Gauff took on her idol, Venus Williams. A seven-time grand slam champion who made her debut at the tournament almost seven years before she was born. In a battle of the generations, youth prevailed as Gauff roared to a sensational 6-4, 6-4, win. Producing a mental and physical display that went well beyond her age. Hitting 18 winners to eight unforced errors and saving two out of the three break points she faced.

“I’m super shocked. But I’m just super blessed that Wimbledon decided to give me the wild card. I mean, I never expected this to happen.” Said Gauff.
“I literally got my dream draw, so I’m just super happy I was able to pull it out today. She played amazing, was just super nice. She’s always been nice the couple times I met her.”

Gauff is one of the many who have benefitted from the legacy created by both Williams and her sister Serena. The most successful siblings in the entire history of the sport. Just seconds after the biggest win of her life, Gauff spoke with Venus at the net. Paying tribute to what she has achieved in the sport.

“I was just telling her thank you for everything she’s done for the sport. She’s been an inspiration for many people. I was just really telling her thank you.”

It could be argued that too much hype is gathering around the youngster, who had to take an online science test on the eve of her final qualifying match. However, Gauff is not an ordinary teenager. Even before Wimbledon, she has earned the reputation of being a teenage prodigy. As a junior, she contested the final of the US Open at the age of 13 in 2017 before winning the French Open the following year. At the Miami Open in March, she won her first match on the WTA Tour.

“Cori is such an exciting young player. She’s so cool. She’s a great girl. I love her dad. There’s just really cool people.” Former world No.1 Serena said on Saturday.

The rise of the American hasn’t gone unnoticed in the corporate world. She already has endorsements with food manufacturer Barilla, clothing brand New Balance and sports equipment maker Head. Forbes magazine lists her endorsements as being worth in the region of $1 million.

The Williams sisters aren’t her only heroes. Another is Roger Federer, who also has an endorsement deal with Barilla. It was a conversation from the Swiss maestro that Gauff links with her grand slam triumph in the juniors.

“Roger Federer definitely inspired me. When I lost in the first round Australian Open juniors, I talked to him. Gave me kind of a pep talk. The next tournament was French Open juniors, and I ended up winning it, so I guess it helped.” She said.

The desire to be the greatest

Embed from Getty Images

Fresh off her win over Williams, Gauff was questioned as to what her goal was next at The All England Club. She responded by saying, `to win it.’ The determination is something past onto her from her family. Her father, Corey, played basketball at Golden State University. Meanwhile, her mother, Candi, excelled in Track and Field whilst at Florida State University.

“I want to be the greatest. My dad told me that I could do this when I was eight. Obviously, you never believe it.” She explained.
“I’m still, like, not 100% confident. But, like, you have to just say things. You never know what happens.”

Williams is one of those who think Gauff has what it takes to rise to the top. Visibly frustrated by her loss to the rising star, the 39-year-old was impressed with what she saw on the court.

“I think the sky’s the limit, it really is,” Venus said of Gauff.
“She did everything well today. She put the ball in the court, which was much better than I did. She served well, moved well. It was a great match for her.”

Only time will tell how great Gauff can become. It isn’t all down to ability. How she fair over the coming years mentally under the spotlight will be a stern test. As it was for previously teenage talents of the game such as Martina Hingis and Jennifer Capriati. Although the signs are good.

“This is just a tournament. I’ve played a lot of tournaments. Obviously, this one is a little bit different. But I’m just right now relaxing, then focus on the next round tomorrow.” She stated.

Now the talk of the entire tournament, Gauff will play Magdaléna Rybáriková in the second round. A former semi-finalist back in 2017 who knocked out 10th seed Aryna Sabalenka in her opening match. Like Venus said ‘skies the limit’ for the new star of women’s tennis.

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