Pow, slam, wham, boff, bonk, thwack, zap – Reilly Opelka’s serve is a thunderous blast that’s hard to get your racket on. So are his opinions. In this world of well-lawyered and over-produced media statements, boring safe-harbor views rule the roost. In contrast, candid, spontaneous opinions are too often rare oases in a desert of dullness.
Opelka’s unvarnished commentaries are refreshing tonics. And in my recent interview with America’s No. 1 male player, which drew a large, lively response, we were nothing if not blunt.
I didn’t exactly have to plea, “Oh puh-leez, Reilly, open up and tell us what you really think.” One conversational rally between us was about as good a “tell-it-like-it-is” exchange as I’ve had in 40 years of covering this game. I asked whether American men could possibly emerge and get to the very top pretty soon.
He replied, “No. No, I don’t think we can.” I asked why. He quipped succinctly, “The Russians. The Russians – they are here to stay and they are here to dominate for a while.”
People liked Reilly’s candid assessment. Even more, they savored his scorching criticism of ESPN commentator Chris Fowler. The longtime broadcaster does have an awareness of the game. He does his homework and he can turn a phrase. But his smug demeanor and his “I’m in the club and you aren’t” exchanges with his on-air pals often are cringe-worthy.
Opelka said, “There are so many negative people out there. I could name names but I don’t want to. [Actually] I do want to name names because I do want to call them out, but at the same time I don’t even want them to know that I give a s–t about them because they have no say in my life.” He then named three of America’s most prominent tennis writers, but asked me not to use their names. Then he continued.
“I will say one name. Chris Fowler tweeted about Carlos Alcaraz, the youngest man to make a Slam quarterfinal. He tweeted, ‘What a shame that he threw in the towel, hope that this isn’t a pattern.’ That was pathetic…I tweeted back at Fowler saying, ‘After everything Carlos showed us…you’re really going to question his courage?’ That’s one take that’s terrible…he does college football, he shouldn’t work another tennis match. It hurts the sport because ESPN has a lot of guys who are following football…and don’t know anything about tennis, and they’re like, ‘This young kid just completely just walked off the court, what an idiot, what a jackass.’ That just can’t happen. If I’m commissioner of tennis, that’s one offense too much.”
One online reader responded, “I’ve never agreed with something as much as with him saying Fowler does not belong in the commentary box for tennis.” Another reader wrote, “Finally, a clear view on pompous pretentious know-it-all Fowler! Always annoying & rarely illuminating. When he & McEnroe chatter off topic, it’s awful.” Others claimed Fowler was prone to “personal ridicule” and “character assassination.”
Opelka jumped in on many topics. He predicted that America’s youngest players – Jenson Brooksby, Seb Korda and Brandon Nakashima – have a better chance of making it than he and his posse – Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe and Tommy Paul.
Reilly said the widely celebrated Indian Wells tourney was his least favorite event. The man who’s won $3.2 million in on-court earnings and many off-court benefits sounded entitled when he complained, “Every brand needs to do a photoshoot and you don’t have time to practice. They’re four or five-hour photo shoots and you’re completely tired. Tennis is secondary. I hate it.”
He also threw shade on mixed doubles. Never mind that the event fills a scheduling hole late in majors, provides income, can be interesting and has a history of fun pairings: think Graf-McEnroe, Navratilova-Bob Bryan, Serena-Andy Murray. Reilly contended, “No one cares about it, no one watches or wants it to be there. Just get rid of it.”
Like Novak Djokovic, Opelka implied that the media was the driving force behind the recent brouhaha about players taking long breaks to go off court. But it was Alexander Zverev and Andy Murray who kickstarted the controversy by claiming that such breaks are about primarily about gamesmanship and interrupt the momentum of matches.
On the other hand, Opelka lavished warm, well deserved praise on his friends, his support team and many others, including Venus Williams. He said, “If it weren’t for Serena she’d be the greatest woman player of all time. Then again, there’s no Serena without Venus. So you almost have to give it to them both.” But somehow the records of Stefanie Graf, Martina Navratilova, Margaret Court, Monica Seles and Billie Jean King come to mind.
Plus Opelka puts his fellow tennis rebel, John McEnroe, on a pedestal. “He was incredibly, incredibly optimistic at Laver Cup,” Reilly noted. “He’s misunderstood…He’s a genius. He’s brilliant and cultured. He’s a rock star.”
I love McEnroe, too. He’s been good to me and he’s one of our best commentators. But if you want someone to reflect on the nuances of complex situations, he may not be your man.
Two prime things come across in the Opelka conversation. The very successful man who already is making millions and someday could attain super stardom by winning a Slam, bluntly tells us he “doesn’t give a s–t” what others think. That’s fine. He deserves his wealth and his individuality. But having an attitude of not giving a shit (or a f–k) has its limits. As your former teacher, Dr. James Loehr says, character matters, appreciation counts.
Reilly also says he doesn’t want to be a punching bag. Fair enough, but then he comes out swinging and punches below the belt against my profession, saying, “The tennis media sucks,” and adding, “The media is awful in our sport. It holds our sport back – it really does.”
In fact, the media greatly advances tennis. We bring the game alive and tell the stories of our sport and its personalities. On occasion the media even acts as a conscience for the sport and asks tough, important questions. As Billie Jean King notes, tennis needs the media – and visa versa.
Opelka complains, with some justification, that reporters so often ask about the short-falls of American men’s tennis, noting that it hasn’t had a top player in a good while.
But the hard truth is that when all is said and done, in the immortal words of football coach Herm Edwards, “You play the game to win.” Pro football comes down to the Super Bowl. In boxing it’s the heavyweight championship. In baseball, what matters is the World Series. And in our sport, to much of the public it is a matter of who wins the Slams and who’s at the very top of the game.
So, almost any sports writer who’s assigned to cover tennis might just ask the logical but uncomfortable question of why it’s been nearly two decades since there’s been an American Slam champ. And what writer coming on the scene wouldn’t want to ask about what Reilly alone has done – being so very good as a seven-footer?
Granted, there is so very much more to the sport than these things. And Opelka’s run to the Rome semifinals, where he faced Nadal, and the Toronto final, where he fell to Medvedev, were superb performances.
Still, sounding a bit like a victim, he claimed, “You don’t know anything about me.” But that’s not exactly true. Many reporters have done their homework. And it would be easy to reverse Opelka’s claim and tell him, “Hey, Reilly, you don’t know anything about us, the tennis media.”
Yes, Reilly, the media is flawed – at times deeply flawed. It’s easy to cherry pick questionable things that writers and broadcasters, including myself, have, at times, claimed. But please understand that tennis is a niche game on the edge of American sports with none of the pull of the NFL, the NBA or MLB. You yourself noted that even lacrosse is bigger.
Virtually no newspapers have full-time tennis writers. And tennis is worldwide. It’s expensive to fly to Melbourne or Dubai. It’s increasingly difficult for many writers to even make a modest living.
Yes, there are some in the media who are annoying, who think they know more than they do, and don’t have sufficient life experience. Some even seem eager to bring people down.
But almost all are not mean-spirited, incompetent or lazy. Many are dedicated and willing to crank their copy out till 2:00 AM in order to get the story right. Most know the ever-changing game well and stay abreast. Many write flowing narratives or breezy, delightful asides. Without writers, Althea Gibson wouldn’t have been able to rise out of poverty, the US Open’s stadium wouldn’t be named after Arthur Ashe, an ATP leader involved in a violent brawl would still be in place, and Coco would be primarily thought of as a drink, not a fabulous athlete. And it was while watching a TV broadcast that Richard Williams came up with an idea that changed the modern game: have two kids, Venus and Serena, who would dominate.
You make an excellent point that John Isner has often been dissed for not getting to the very top. But his incredible Wimbledon marathon match wouldn’t have been nearly as celebrated if the media (including those you criticize) had not been there over three long days to tell the story.
Yes, ultimately, athletes should be judged on their own merits. But comparisons are embedded in sports. How can fans or writers resist comparing Roger, Rafa and Novak?
Yes, today’s American male players should be fully embraced and appreciated. But how can we just forget the last American who won the sport’s greatest prize (an achievement which you yourself said was your goal)? Are we to just completely brush aside the Sampras, Agassi, Courier, Chang, Martin generation, or not reflect on the three GOATS among us?
As in life, so, too, in sports: standards are set. Clear issues arise. Inevitably we wonder whether teen darling Emma Raducanu will manage to thrive, whether Serena will equal Margaret Court’s mark of 24 Slams and when there’ll be another men’s American Slam champion.
The tennis media should continue to ask tough and even obvious questions, have thick skins and expect torrents of criticism. But also, as great players travel the world, they should understand that they will repeatedly be asked certain questions. It comes with the territory of being a star athlete.
Like so many professions, the tennis media has been hit hard by COVID. Travel is challenging and pricey, continuity has vanished, in-person interviews, that are our life-blood, are rare.
Still, tennis journalism soldiers on. Recently a wonderful tennis encyclopedia was published. So were a slew of tennis books, including three on Federer – and one of those reached the New York Times bestseller list. Granted, most media outlets have issues. Still, our publication, Inside Tennis, that’s now in its 41st year, along with the Tennis Channel, ESPN, Tennis Magazine, Racquet, Florida Tennis and countless social media outlets, amplify and relish the game we all love.
Reilly, you refer to yourself and America’s other great players and say “Just enjoy us, support us.” That’s fine, to a degree. But that’s not really the role of journalists, who need to report and also step back, assess and question.
I’m tempted to reverse your request and say, “Hey Reilly, just enjoy us, support us.” But that’s not the point.
In the forthright interview you kindly gave me, you said it was important not to take any shortcuts. I can’t hit a cross-court topspin backhand to the far corner and, only in my dreams, could I return one of your serves.
But, like so many in our trade, I can pound out a half decent tennis story. And that skill brings you guys alive and showcases your greatness, as well as your shortcomings.
So, good and great Reilly, please don’t take any shortcuts, and don’t say, “The tennis media sucks.” Because, you know what? It doesn’t. And in the end, we are all in this together.
For those who haven’t seen it, here is a link to the original interview with Reilly: