Opelka makes it two in a row for U.S. boys at Wimbledon

July 12, 2015 01:01 PM

By Sandra Harwitt, special to USTA.com

WIMBLEDON – In the “great news keeps happening in American junior boys’ tennis category,” 17-year-old Reilly Opelka became the latest Yankee Doodle Dandy to wave the flag at a Grand Slam. 

On a cloudy Sunday afternoon at the All England Club, the unseeded Opelka became a Grand Slam champion, besting 12th seed Mikael Ymer of Sweden, 7-6 (5), 6-4, in the Wimbledon boys’ singles final.

Opelka is following in the footsteps of some recent American boys who have made significant noise at the majors.

Just last month, Tommy Paul defeated Taylor Fritz in the first all-American boys’ final to grace the clay courts of Roland Garros. The last time American boys delivered back-to-back Grand Slam victories was in 1977, when John McEnroe won the French Open and Van Winitsky went on to win at Wimbledon and the US Open.

“It’s got to be the best it’s been for the (American) juniors in a while,” Opelka said. “It’s great knowing that all the competition, there’s a high level in the United States. It’s awesome.”

And in a nod to Wimbledon history, Opelka became the second consecutive American junior boy, and 12th overall, to win at Wimbledon. At last year’s tournament, Noah Rubin defeated fellow American Stefan Kozlov to earn Wimbledon hardware. This marks only the second time at Wimbledon dating back to 1947 that an American won the title here two years in a row: Billy Martin scored at Wimbledon in 1973 and ’74.

“This is a very encouraging sign for the future of American men’s tennis,” said USTA Player Development General Manager Martin Blackman. Reilly, of course, deserves congratulations for the hard work and dedication that led to an incredible achievement this week at Wimbledon, but I’m also very pleased to see the whole group of American juniors playing well and pushing each other.”

What was awesome was the way that Opelka went about securing this Wimbledon trophy.

At the beginning of the competition, it was looking pretty dismal for Opelka. In fact, he nearly didn’t make it out of the first round, needing to fend off a match point against Australian qualifier Alex De Minaur in a hard-fought 4-6, 6-3, 13-11 win.

“[I] started out down match point in the first round,” he said. “Just kind of had to find a way. Luckily, I was able to get through that. I progressed almost every single match from there on. I felt like I got better throughout the whole tournament.”

That assessment could be something of an understatement from the new Wimbledon champion, who reconstructed the boys’ draw by taking out four seeds in his path to victory: No. 3 Corentin Denolly of France in the second round, No. 10 William Blumberg of the U.S. in the quarterfinals, No. 1 Taylor Fritz in the semifinals and, finally, Ymer.

Although Opelka, whose trained at the USTA Training Center Headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., since he was 12, seemed to be building in confidence with each round, his family’s expectations fell short of what he delivered. They planned their departure for Friday and then had to scramble to rebook flights and find an available hotel, an effort rewarded in the best possible manner.

“They just didn’t have confidence, I guess,” said Opelka, smiling. “They really weren’t believing in me.”

Opelka, along with Paul, work with USTA coach Diego Moyana, who took the Wimbledon journey every step of the way with his latest success story. In the big picture, however, it’s been USTA coach Tom Gullikson who has mentored Opelka from childhood. Gullikson met Opelka’s father, George, on a golf course in Palm Coast, Fla., soon after the Opelka family moved to Florida. Gullikson and dad played a round of golf, became friends and watched as young Reilly gravitated to the game.

“Diego’s been great and has been unbelievable working with Tommy and me, day to day, since we’ve been 14 or 15,” Opelka said. “He’s (Tom) is pretty happy. He messaged me. He said it’s a great achievement, but it’s time to move on. Obviously it’s a great accomplishment to win junior Wimbledon, but the part where it matters is ahead.”

At 6-foot-10, it is something of a given that Opelka falls into the serving machine mold. He confirms that his serve is “what keeps him in matches, obviously.” But he also admitted he had to work around his serve, which wasn’t dialed in during his first round match, to stay alive in the competition.

His serve, which registered at least one 134 mph zinger during the final, eventually returned to form and was his winning weapon. In the final, he never offered the 16-year-old Ymer a break point opportunity in the 1-hour, 25-minute match, and he blasted 13 aces during the encounter.

Opelka had four opportunites to break serve, and three came in the ninth game of the second set. That would be his only break of serve in the match – Ymer double faulted on the final point of the game – but it was all Opelka needed to go home with the trophy.

After winning the singles title, the day was not over for Opelka. He was playing for a daily double, having reached the boys’ doubles final as well. Unfortunately, as the fourth seeds, Opelka and Akira Santillan of Japan were on the losing side of the doubles final, taken out by eighth seeds Nam Hoang Ly of Viet Nam and Sumit Nagal of India, 7-6 (4), 6-4.

“I didn’t have much time in between, which maybe could’ve helped,” Opelka said. “I got off the court, stretched and did my routine. I was still eating a sandwich as I was walking back on the court.”

Despite the doubles outcome, Opelka knows this is a day he’ll always remember.

He was last seen heading off to receive his winner’s trophy for a second time on Sunday, this time around in an official Royal Box presentation. Before he went off to meet a genuine member of the Royal Family, however, Opelka wondered whether someone had organized black tie attire that would fit and not make him look as if he was wading through a flood at Sunday’ night’s Wimbledon Ball.

“I guess I’ll find out in a few minutes,” he said, laughing.