A Year In The Making: Inside Opelka’s Amazing Ascent
After posting one of the best Challenger campaigns in 2018, Reilly Opelka is an ATP Tour champion, soaring nearly 200 spots in the ATP Rankings
It was all about Big O in the Big Apple. Last week, Reilly Opelka was the talk of the ATP Tour, making a massive statement as big as his 6’11” frame in claiming his maiden title at the New York Open.
Opelka turned in an overwhelming serving display, hammering 156 aces while earning four deciding-set victories to lift the trophy. He saved six match points to stun top seed John Isner in the semis, before edging Brayden Schnur in a third-set tie-break on Sunday.
It was the crowning achievement for the 21-year-old, who made significant strides over the past year to arrive at this moment. To say that a player ‘put in the hard work’ can often sound clichéd, but in this case it couldn’t be closer to the truth. Armed with a well-rounded game and transformed approach, Opelka has put in the hard yards.
Winning breeds winning, regardless of the level, and Opelka has adopted that mentality. He points to his 2018 Challenger campaign as the impetus for his strong tour-level results in 2019. The American is proving that while his game is predicated on a mammoth serve, his agility, court awareness and touch around the net are his keys to victory, especially in pressure moments. As he continued to win matches, those skills matured at a rapid rate.
The oft-injured American has battled foot and leg ailments in recent years, which has hampered his progress since breaking onto the scene as a teenager. But, finally healthy and under the tutelage of Jean-Yves Aubone, Opelka emerged as one of the biggest stars on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2018. It was a breakthrough campaign for the Michigan native, and despite battling a debilitating case of mononucleosis during the summer months, he turned in a staggering surge up the ATP Rankings.
“Last year was huge for me,” Opelka reflected. “It was the first time I consistently put together a lot of matches in a row. I reached a lot of semi-finals and I think the year before there wasn’t one week where I had won three matches in a row. Being able to play on the Challenger Tour and not as many ATP Tour events, helped me string all those matches together. It gave me a lot of confidence and I learned a lot about myself and my tennis. It allowed me to work on some things that I knew needed to be addressed.”
Entering the 2018 season, Opelka had won a combined 17 matches at the Challenger level in his young career. He doubled that total in the span of 11 months, finishing with an impressive 34-11 win-loss mark, including three titles. In fact, his .756 win percentage came in second place, behind only Vasek Pospisil (.784). Another player on that list, Juan Ignacio Londero, also won his maiden ATP Tour title in recent weeks, prevailing in Cordoba.
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Opelka demonstrated his vast shotmaking arsenal and all-court game with his first clay-court crown at the prestigious BNP Paribas Primrose in Bordeaux, France, in mid-May. And despite sitting out a three-month stretch following the mono diagnosis, he would dominate upon returning to the Challenger circuit. A 17-4 run would follow, including back-to-back indoor crowns in Knoxville and Champaign to conclude the year and vault him to the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings.
Opelka lifts the trophy in Bordeaux
“Looking back, having mono actually gave me the advantage of having a few months inside, and I wasn’t as burnt out as most players are by the end of the year. It made me pretty anxious and hungry and I was ready to go. The timing of all that helped a lot and it put me in the position of being in the main draw of these big tournaments. Now I don’t have to go through qualifying anymore.”
Opelka has always set lofty goals for himself and views his Challenger success as stepping stones to bigger and better things at the tour-level. It did not take long for that transition to take flight, securing his first Grand Slam match win over John Isner at the Australian Open and following that up with another victory over Isner en route to the title in New York.
From sitting outside the Top 200 and in a hospital bed just nine months ago to a career-high No. 56 on Monday, it has been a meteoric rise for the 21-year-old. Opelka is finally showing what he’s capable of and he’s putting the rest of the ATP Tour on notice.
World No. 1 accepts prestigious honor in Monte-Carlo
The trophies keep coming for Novak Djokovic in 2019. The World No. 1 won the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award on Monday evening at the 2019 Laureus World Sports Awards in Monte-Carlo.
This marks the fourth time that Djokovic has been selected for the award, having previously won it in 2012, 2015 and 2016. Other nominees this year included American basketball star LeBron James, Kenyan long-distance runner Eliud Kipchoge and French football player Kylian Mbappe.
“A Laureus Award is what every athlete wants to win, and this one is a huge honour for me. Being among so many sporting greats here tonight… gives this award a special meaning for me,” said Djokovic. “Last year was an incredible season for me. Returning from injury to win Wimbledon and the US Open is something I’ll remember forever.”
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Djokovic earned the prestigious accolade off the second half of his 2018 season. From July to November, he compiled a 35-3 record and won four titles, including two Grand Slams (Wimbledon, US Open) and two Masters 1000 events (Shanghai Rolex Masters, Western & Southern Open). He also finished runner-up at the ATP Finals and Rolex Paris Masters.
The Serbian is scheduled to return to action next month at the BNP Paribas Open.
Gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Novak Djokovic won the top prizes at the 2019 Laureus World Sports Awards.
American Biles, 21, was named Sportswoman of the Year after winning four gold medals, one silver and one bronze at the 2018 World Championships.
Serb Djokovic, 31, won the Sportsman of the Year award after claiming victory at both the US Open and Wimbledon.
Golfer Tiger Woods won the Comeback award, while tennis player Naomi Osaka won Breakthrough of the Year.
America’s 14-time major winner Woods won the season-ending Tour Championship by two shots to record his first win in five years following spinal fusion surgery.
Japan’s Osaka won her first Grand Slam title at the US Open last year, then won the Australian Open last month.
Elsewhere, Slovakian skier Henrieta Farkasova and guide Natalia Subrtova won the Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability award after winning four gold medals at the 2018 Winter Paralympics.
Football World Cup winners France won Team of the Year, and Kenyan athlete Eliud Kipchoge took the Exceptional Achievement Award after taking 78 seconds off the world marathon record with his victory in Berlin.
American snowboarder Chloe Kim was given the Action Sportsperson of the Year Award, former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger received the Lifetime Achievement Award, and American skier Lindsey Vonn won the Spirit of Sport Award.
Frenchman begins bid for third Marseille title with three-set win
Gilles Simon recovered from a set and a break down to defeat countryman Antoine Hoang 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 at the Open 13 Provence on Monday.
“I expected a tough match and I’m very happy that I won,” said Simon. “I’ve won a couple of matches after being a set and a break down, so I didn’t feel like I was close to losing.”
The 34-year-old Frenchman, who lifted the trophy in 2007 and 2015, saved eight of 11 break points to record his 25th win in 35 matches at the ATP 250 event in Marseille. The 23-year-old wild card Hoang led Simon 7-5, 2-0 on Court Central, on his tournament debut, before falling to the two-time former champion after two hours and 14 minutes.
Simon will meet Peter Gojowczyk or Damir Dzumhur for a place in the quarter-finals. The sixth seed trails Gojowczyk 0-1 in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series and lost his only previous FedEx ATP Head2Head encounter against Dzumhur at Winston-Salem in 2017.
Hubert Hurkacz fired 13 aces to defeat Filip Krajinovic 6-3, 6-2. The 2018 Next Gen ATP Finals qualifier notched his first tour-level victory of the 2019 ATP Tour season after 65 minutes, saving all eight break points he faced to reach the second round.
Hurkacz will meet top seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the second round. Hurkacz and Tsitsipas met for the first time in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series at the Next Gen ATP Finals last year, with eventual champion Tsitsipas prevailing in straight sets.
The final match on Monday’s schedule saw Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan save all seven break points he faced to defeat American Denis Kudla 6-3, 6-3. Next up for Kukushkin is fourth seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada.
Britain’s Heather Watson was unable to earn her first WTA Tour main-draw win since September as she lost to Russian teenager Anastasia Potapova at the Hungarian Open.
Watson, 26, lost 6-4 2-6 7-6 (7-4) against the 17-year-old in Budapest.
Watson, who has dropped to 111th in the world, led 5-3 in the final set before Potapova won the next three games.
The Briton broke serve to force a tie-break, but 87th-ranked Potapova quickly took control in the decider.
Potapova, who has reached the final in two of the seven main-draw tournaments she has played, sealed victory with an ace on her first match point.
Watson grew frustrated in the latter stages of a tense, two-hour contest, often throwing her racquet onto the court and sitting on her chair with her heads in her hands at one changeover, as the possibility of a first main-draw win since reaching the Quebec City semi-finals slipped away.
It was her first appearance since missing Great Britain’s Fed Cup matches earlier this month through illness.
Her only victories this year have come in qualifying at the Hobart Open, while she also won matches in Challenger and ITF Tour events – the tiers below the main WTA Tour – towards the end of last year.
Scouting Report: 30 Things To Watch In Rio de Janeiro, Delray Beach & Marseille
An executive summary of what every fan should know about the coming week on the ATP Tour
The ATP Tour heads into the eighth week of its 2019 season with the second ATP 500 tournament of the year taking place in Rio de Janeiro, alongside ATP 250 events in Delray Beach and Marseille. Dominic Thiem leads the field at the Rio Open presented by Claro, Juan Martin del Potro returns at the Delray Beach Open by VITACOST.com and Stefanos Tsitsipas is the top seed at the Open 13 Provence in Marseille.
View Draws: Rio de Janeiro | Delray Beach | Marseille
10 THINGS TO WATCH IN RIO DE JANEIRO
1) Golden Hour: The month-long “Golden Swing” continues through Latin America, with the Rio Open presented by Claro as the third stop, and the first 500-level clay-court event of the year. Defending champion Diego Schwartzman and 2017 titlist Dominic Thiem are two of the Top 4 seeds, with Italians Fabio Fognini and Argentina Open winner Marco Cecchinato rounding out the top quartet.
2) Winning Thiem: Thiem comes into Rio as the No. 1 seed and World No. 8, aiming to reclaim the title he won in 2017, having lost to Fernando Verdasco in last year’s quarter-finals. The Austrian, who reached his first Grand Slam final on the red clay of Roland Garros last year, has a 10-2 record overall at the Rio Open, including a semi-final showing in his first appearance in 2016.
3) Fog Rolling In: No. 2 seed Fognini has had a slow start to the Golden Swing, as the World No. 16 lost his opening-round matches at Cordoba and Buenos Aires to Aljaz Bedene and Jaume Munar, respectively. But the top-ranked Italian has had some of his finest results at Rio, notably defeating Rafael Nadal in the 2015 semi-finals en route to his career-best finalist showing at the tournament.
4) Turn It Around: No. 3 seed Cecchinato is 0-4 in main-draw matches at the Rio Open, having fallen in the first round in each of the last four editions. However, the No. 2 Italian had a similar 0-3 win-loss record at Buenos Aires going into that event last week, and he ended up hoisting the champion’s trophy. Cecchinato has been rewarded with a new career-high ranking of No. 17.
Watch Cecchinato Win The 2019 Buenos Aires Title
5) The Champ Returns: Schwartzman won his second career title, and first at ATP 500-level, with his run to the Rio trophy last year. He has yet to win a title since then, but he clinched a finalist showing last week in his hometown of Buenos Aires, before falling to Cecchinato. Schwartzman also made the doubles final in Buenos Aires, partnering Thiem, who he had beaten in the singles semi-finals.
6) Growing Seeds: Joao Sousa, Dusan Lajovic, Malek Jaziri, and Nicolas Jarry occupy the other four seeded positions this week, just as they did last week in Buenos Aires. Each of the four players listed have yet to make a quarter-final during the Golden Swing so far this season.
7) Surprise, Surprise: One player who has had a stellar Golden Swing is Juan Ignacio Londero, who won his first five Tour-level matches at Cordoba as a wild card, clinching his maiden ATP Tour singles title in the process. Londero made it through qualifying to grab a main draw spot at Rio.
8) Title Taker: 2016 champion Pablo Cuevas is the third former Rio titlist to feature in this week’s field. The Uruguayan has won six ATP Tour singles titles, all on clay, and four of the six have come in Brazil. Cuevas has won three times in Sao Paulo to go alongside his lone Rio Open title.
9) Going Wild: Two 18-year-olds were given wild cards this week, Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada and Thiago Seyboth Wild of Brazil. They also happen to be two of the most recent US Open boys’ singles champions: Auger-Aliassime won the title in 2016, and Seyboth Wild claimed it last year. The third wild card went to Thiago Monteiro, a 2017 Rio Open quarter-finalist.
10) Double Duty: Brazilian doubles stars Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares are teaming up for the first time at an ATP Tour event since 2016 Stockholm. Former World No. 1 Melo has won 32 ATP Tour doubles titles and former World No. 2 Soares has won 30, but neither player has ever lifted the Rio title. Melo made the 2014 final. Soares has lost in the semi-finals in each of the event’s five editions.
10 THINGS TO WATCH IN DELRAY BEACH
1) Tiafoe Looks to Remain Perfect: World No. 29 Frances Tiafoe, went a perfect 5-0 in his Delray Beach debut last year, taking home the title. He will look to keep that perfect record and win the tournament for the second time in a row, a feat accomplished only once in tournament history (Jason Stoltenberg: 1996-97).
2) Delpo Debut: Juan Martin Del Potro returns to the court to begin his 2019 season after having a very successful 2018, picking up two titles (Acapulco, Indian Wells) and reaching the final of a Grand Slam (US Open) for the first time since 2009.
3) Recent Home Turf Advantage: An American has won the tournament the past three years, and this year’s eight Americans will look to make it four. However, in the tournament’s 25 years, Americans have won it only seven times.
4) Back-to-Back: Reilly Opelka will try to continue his winning ways after picking up his first ATP Tour victory in New York, defeating fellow American – and Delray Beach participant – Brayden Schnur in the final, 6-1 6-7(7) 7-6(7).
5) #NextGenATP Steps Up: As Tiafoe tries to defend his title, Yosuke Watanuki, born three months after the American, makes the main draw for the first time this season after picking up victories in qualifying. The 20-year-old appears in just his third-career main draw and will look to notch his second match victory, the first coming in 2018 at his home country’s Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships.
6) Decades Between Them: Two first round matchups see pairings with at least 11 years between them. Jared Donaldson (22) takes on Guillermo Garcia-Lopez (35) and Watanuki (20) faces off against Lukas Lacko (31).
7) First-Time Champion Possibility: Only two former champions return to Delray Beach this year (Del Potro, Tiafoe), down from five in 2018. Just four players in the tournament’s 25-year history have won it more than once (Stoltenberg, Ernests Gulbis, Xavier Malisse, Jan-Michael Gambill).
8) Set the Tone: After a stand-out year in 2018 that saw him reach a career-high rank of No. 8, Isner dropped the first two matches in his 2019 season. Following two wins in New York, the American will look to build off the success to push for another top-10 season finish.
9) Bryan Bros Hunt for Number Five: Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan will look to clinch their seventh finals birth and fifth tournament victory this week as they appear in Delray Beach for the 12th time. The pair are also searching for their first tournament victory together in 2019 after notching two wins in 2018 (Miami, Monte-Carlo).
10) Giants in Delray: Height will be on display this week as Ivo Karlovic (6’11”), Opelka (6’11”) and John Isner (6’10”) compete in the tournament.
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10 THINGS TO WATCH IN MARSEILLE
1) Top 15 Contenders: Plenty of veterans as well as rising stars headline the draw in Marseille this week. World No. 12 Stefanos Tsitsipas and No. 13 Borna Coric lead the charge as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively. Tsitsipas has yet to win a first-round match here in two tries, but recent Tour success indicates that this year’s result could be quite a different story.
2) Defending Champ Out: Marseille defending champion Karen Khachanov has withdrawn from the event due to illness, allowing former champion Ernests Gulbis to replace him in the draw.
3) King of Marseille: Three-time Open 13 Provence champion Jo-Wilfried Tsonga returns as a wild card and aims for a fourth crown this year. Tsonga, currently ranked No. 112, claimed the Marseille title in 2009, 2013 and 2017, and earned runner-up honors in 2014 behind Gulbis.
4) French Brigade: Along with Tsonga, No. 6 seed Gilles Simon, No. 7 Gael Monfils, No. 8 Jeremy Chardy, Benoit Paire, Ugo Humbert and Antoine Hoang will represent the home country in this year’s draw. Simon won the title in 2007 and 2015, and Monfils was the runner-up in 2015.
5) #NextGenATP Leaders: Tsitsipas finished 2018 with the Next Gen ATP title and started the 2019 season strong with an Australian Open semi-final appearance (l. to Nadal) that included a win over No. 3 Roger Federer. At 20 years old, Tsitsipas remains a top #NextGenATP contender, along with 19-year-old Denis Shapovalov, who recently reached the quarter-finals in Montpellier and Rotterdam and comes to Marseille as the No. 4 seed.
6) Riding Momentum: Monfils is fresh off winning his eighth career ATP title in Rotterdam on Sunday, after going 13 months without lifting a trophy. Prior to Rotterdam, the 32-year-old reached the semi-finals at Sofia, notching wins over Mikhail Kukushkin and Tsitsipas.
Watch Monfils Beat Wawrinka For The 2019 Rotterdam Title
7) Dark Horse: Serbian Filip Krajinovic has had good fortune in France each year, having reached the quarter-finals in Montpellier early this month, the quarter-finals at Marseille in 2018, and the finals of the ATP Masters 1000 event in Paris in 2017.
8) On the Rise: Italian Matteo Berrettini has proven to be a threat on the ATP Tour. The 22-year-old earned wins over Khachanov and Fernando Verdasco en route to reaching the semi-finals at Sofia earlier this month. His success pushed him to a career-high ranking of No. 46 on Feb. 11.
9) Title Defenders: 2018 doubles champions Raven Klaasen and Michael Venus enter as the No. 2 seeds behind Oliver Marach and Mate Pavic. Venus is undefeated in Marseille, having won two titles here (also 2016). Klaasen and Venus reached the final in Auckland and the quarter-finals at the Australian Open this year.
10) Doubles Trouble: As the top seeds, Marach and Pavic own five titles together, and their recent success includes a semi-final appearance in Auckland.
Humbert Reigns On Home Soil For Fourth Challenger Crown
Revisit the week that was on the ATP Challenger Tour and look ahead to who’s in action in the week to come
A LOOK BACK Challenger La Manche (Cherbourg, France): He opened the week as the top seed as finished as No. 1. Ugo Humbert blasted to the title on home soil in Cherbourg, rallying from a set down in both the semis and the final to lift the trophy. He overcame Mats Moraing on Saturday before storming back to defeat Steve Darcis 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-3 in the championship. At two hours and 23 minutes, it is the longest final thus far in 2019.
Humbert added a fourth ATP Challenger Tour title in total and first in his native France, adding to 2018 triumphs in Segovia, Ortisei and Andria. The #NextGenATP is the youngest Frenchman to claim a quartet of crowns since Richard Gasquet in 2003. At the age of 20, Humbert has firmly cemented himself in the Top 100, rising to a career-high No. 75 in the ATP Rankings.
Moreover, the Metz native surges five spots to fifth place in the ATP Race To Milan. Last year, he finished just outside the Top 7 automatic qualifiers, but he has made a strong early push to punch his ticket to the Next Gen ATP Finals in 2019.
On the other side of the net, Darcis continued his magical comeback from a debilitating elbow injury. Having missed the entire 2018 season, he is on fire in his return, reaching the semis at the season-opening ATP Tour stop in Pune and the final this week in Cherbourg. It was the first final for the former World No. 38 in nearly two years.
Jobtopgun Bangkok Open (Bangkok, Thailand): Third seed Henri Laaksonen gave Switzerland its first ATP Challenger Tour title in three years, surging to victory in the Bangkok final on Sunday. He ousted Dudi Sela 6-2, 6-4 in just 77 minutes. It was the first crown for the Swiss contingent since Laaksonen’s previous victory in Champaign in 2016.
The 26-year-old rises to No. 121 in the ATP Rankings with the title. Considering he was on a 3-13 run entering the tournament, it was a much-needed week for Laaksonen.
A LOOK AHEAD Three tournaments on three continents highlight this week’s slate. The 14th edition of the Trofeo Faip-Perrel on the indoor hard courts of Bergamo, features Evgeny Donskoy as its top seed. Stefano Travaglia leads the home charge, with recent Budapest champ Alexander Bublik seeded third.
Meanwhile, in Morelos, Mexico, defending champion Dennis Novikov is back and joined by top seed Pedja Krstin and Americans Ernesto Escobedo and Christian Harrison. Victor Estrella Burgos, champ in 2015, is an unseeded threat.
And the Bangkok Challenger II is also on the docket, with Laaksonen looking to go back-to-back. Prajnesh Gunneswaran leads the field with a trio of Japanese players – Tatsuma Ito, Yuichi Sugita and Hiroki Moriya.