Reilly Opelka is big: 7 feet tall. He’s brash. He serves up thunderous blasts and unvarnished “I’ll do it my way” commentaries. Yet this massive warrior is also into fashion and the works of trendy artists many of us peasants haven’t even heard of.
His hair has the wild, “chaos is beautiful” look of a rock ‘n’ roll roadie, and he’s happy that people don’t like it. While he adores a tennis icon, John McEnroe, whom some dismiss, he hates a tourney, Indian Wells, that many love. He says he won’t name names, but then he sort of does. Ranked No. 19, he’s the top American male tennis player, but he doesn’t think American men have much of a chance to be the best. And, oh, yes, he says the tennis media suck.
Other than that, he’s just your typical 7-foot-tall, 24-year-old white multimillionaire who’s inspired by a black female legend, digs Rome, Tokyo and the streets of Manhattan, and doesn’t give a s–t what you think.
Italian Fabio Fognini says Opelka’s game is boring. But the Michigan native, who has long lived in Florida, may well be the most intriguing top-20 star to emerge out of the ATP since Nick Kyrgios. He’s real, raw, very salty and eminently likeable. Here’s our conversation:
In your press conferences you’re so bright, so present and quite the badass. Where does all that come from?
I’ve been fortunate to be around some good tennis minds and good quality people my whole life: Tom Gulickson, Jay Berger, Jim Loehr, and Venus – who has one of the best perspectives on life from a player. I’ve been super lucky. I met Gullickson at eight – I hadn’t even played yet. If I hadn’t met Gully, I wouldn’t have met Berger. If I hadn’t met Jay, I wouldn’t have met Loehr. If I was not on tour, I wouldn’t hang out with Venus or learn from John Isner.
Jim Loehr, the mental fitness pioneer, is unique. What’s the one take-away from him?
Complex guy. It’s crazy, I can explain things to him and he already knows. He fills them in before I even say them. It’s nuts. He’s worked with so many great people. He has a great perspective on how small tennis is in the big scheme of things. He has a good outlook on balance, and what really matters. He’s dealt with Navy Seals who have seen their best friend step on a landmine. Those are traumatic events – not just hitting a yellow ball and missing a lot.
The Laver Cup was a wakeup call. Can American men possibly emerge and get to the very top pretty soon?
No. No, I don’t think we can.
Is it that Europe is just…?
The Russians. The Russians – they are here to stay and they are here to dominate for a while.
You guys are working your asses off, but you know the European and US stats. Why is there such a disparity?
We are only a handful of guys. It’s just a much smaller sample size. In Europe it’s either soccer or tennis. In the US it’s either football, baseball or basketball. Soccer is bigger than tennis in the US, lacrosse is bigger. The best athletes in the world are American. But they just play basketball and football. And why not? I wish I played basketball. I think I’m a great athlete, my body moves well for a 7-footer. If I was a mediocre basketball player, a top 20 NBA player, I’d be making $28 million a year. Instead I’m grinding, traveling the world and making much less. I could stay at home, cash checks for 12 years. If you are the eighth man on the Bulls, you are making more than the guy who’s No. 8 in the world [in tennis].
You said Seb Korda and Jenson Brooksby would be our future champs.
The young guys are better than us, if I’m being honest. Korda is a hell of a player…Brooksby is brutal…He’s going to be a big second-week guy. [Brandon] Nakashima is as pure of a ball-striker as there is. The young guys are going to be the guys to beat, from the American standpoint…Korda’s dad was a great player – no offense to Seb but it’s hard not to be great. He grew up with a great tennis mind and he’s a nice kid. He’s got a nice build, a nice modern-day tennis frame…[But] I’d invest in Brooksby. He’s special, and could be No. 1. His mind works so differently. He’s got this game plan, he sees things so well and is so tricky. Behind the baseline he reminds me of Djokovic. He’s got great depth, is a great ball striker, a great mover, good size and intangibles. He’s got this X-factor, his mindset, that could make him a future Grand Slam champion.
You said the tennis media sucks.
These guys are terrible – there are some bad journalists. You have some guys that just criticize. They look to be super negative. Guys that know nothing about tennis. I think we have the worst media of any sport, quite frankly.
Do you think there are reporters who do have an understanding, who work hard to tell the story of the game and bring personalities alive?
I’m sure there are, but none of the ones that interview me or none of the ones that I’ve done pressers [with]. I’m in the finals of Toronto and these guys are asking me, “What’s wrong with American tennis? Why aren’t there any American players in the top 30?” The same in Rome: I’m in the semis and they are finding the negative. I’m 23 and playing Rafa. Things are quite all right. I’m in the finals of Toronto and we are going to talk about how Americans don’t win Slams?
They take subtle shots at John Isner. I’m like, “Why?” He’s been top 20 for 10 years in a row. We have a journalist saying, “Mixed-doubles is not in the French Open this year. That’s what makes a Slam a Slam.” Like, really? Is that a joke? There shouldn’t even be mixed doubles. They should get rid of it completely. It doesn’t sell a ticket. No one cares about it, no one watches or wants it to be there. Just get rid of it and throw all that money into the women’s and men’s qualifying. Take care of your people that actually have potential to sell tickets. It just shocks me. The media is awful in our sport. It holds our sport back, it really does.
John McEnroe recently said that Americans fans were spoiled by generations of great players who actually won Slams. Do fans just want winners and don’t appreciate lower ranked players?
Enjoy what you got – the guys that are here. Why criticize them so much? Don’t compare us to Sampras and Agassi. Just enjoy us, support us. You don’t even know the first thing about me. 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 names three of America’s most prominent tennis writers, but asks me not to use their names. But 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.
But Alcaraz is just 18, he plays in the shadow of Rafa and he was balling in New York and had a great run.
I tweeted back at Fowler saying, “After everything Carlos showed us this week, you’re really going to question his courage?” That’s one take that’s terrible. This guy is on ESPN, 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 or don’t know Carlos Alcaraz…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.
There are some problematic media people, but there are plenty who are trying to do the work and staying up till 1:30 AM to file their stuff…
Totally, yeah – I know there are, but with that same logic they wrote me into the same American negative narrative. Not ripping you, but people were so sensitive about it. It’s like if you’re not willing to take it, don’t dish it out. I’m not just going to sit up on the podium and be a punching bag. Find something other than Sampras and Agassi, like, get over it. Quit blowing on that s–t. It’s over. Times have changed. It is 2021, we are not in the eighties and nineties, move on.
What about your core generation, Frances Tiafoe, Tommy Paul and Taylor Fritz – fresh energy, working hard?
We’re all friends, no bad blood. We’re not the next Agassi, Sampras or Courier. Do you know how many times I’ve been asked that? Can I finally say, ’I don’t know and I don’t f–king care.” All I know is that I like Frances, Tommy and Fritz. We have fun and travel the world. Frances came from Sierra Leone and has done an incredible job…Tommy Paul’s from Greenville, North Carolina. He didn’t come from money, he didn’t have a coach. His mom saved up money, traveled to every tournament, no matter how far. Same thing for me. I’m not from much money. I have two great parents. They gave me every resource and went into debt. We came from nothing. It’s all perspective.
Does it bring you pride that as such a big man you are bringing athleticism, movement and stroke production to the game?
I take some pride in it. I take pride in winning matches and being the best I can be. I don’t care how I win, I don’t care if it’s ugly, I don’t care if a tennis journalist wants to criticize it and say I have no return of serve. If I hold serve 95% of the time I’m going to be top 8 in the world. I’m one of the best athletes in the world. I’m going to be making 8 to 10 million dollars, and I won’t give a s–t about what anyone else thinks.
There’s a long history of guys with long hair – Borg, Agassi, Federer, Hewitt, Blake – cutting their locks. Is your hair a statement?
It’s just different, it’s just a switch up. It’s like a punk look. It’s long, it’s different, it’s crazy, it’s curly. I like it. And I like that people don’t like it.
Many tennis players have been into art. Vitas Gerulaitis, Wojciech Fibak, Ivan Lendl, Milos Raonic and even John McEnroe.
McEnroe’s made more money off of one painting than he did in his career earnings. He has plenty of paintings like that. We’re talking serious art: Andy Warhol, Basquiat, and he has four Philip Gustons, who is my favorite artist. That’s pretty wild. He’s a really sweet guy. I’ve always gotten along well with guys like McEnroe because it’s impossible to have a problem with them because he tells you everything he’s feeling. He just shoots straight and tells me how it is. And on top of that there are not many people that have four Philip Guston paintings, Basquiat, Picassos, and Warhols and lived through the 70s and 80s era of rock and roll and tennis. People just think of him as mentally crazy, a hothead New York guy….[But] he was incredibly, incredibly optimistic at Laver Cup. He’s misunderstood…He’s a genius. He’s brilliant and cultured. He’s a rock star.
You’ve broken into the top 20. Now what do you want to do in the sport?
My dream is to win a Slam.
Next up is the great Indian Wells.
It’s my least favorite tournament. You have 128 girls, 128 men. It’s a beautiful event. They want to pay more than any other tournament. They do everything they can. It’s just that 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.
Stefanos Tsitsipas was criticized heavily by Zverev in Cincy and by Murray in New York for gamesmanship, for taking long breaks that they claimed changed the momentum.
I took long bathroom breaks in Toronto and got criticized, but, again, they don’t even know the situation. Again, that’s why the tennis media sucks. They don’t even know. It took me six minutes to walk to a bathroom. It takes me three to four minutes to take off my sweaty socks and put dry socks on, change out my orthotics to a different pair of shoes and then re-tie those shoes. At the US Open, I changed against Basilashvili super quick in two minutes and he was complaining and I was like, “Dude, what do you want me to do?’ Like who the f–k are you to complain? You’re just complaining because Murray complained and it’s the cool thing to do now.”
Part of me is salty, but there’s truth to both sides. If he’s taking a bathroom break and he’s not changing then there is no excuse.
A career is made up of decisions. What’s the best decision you’ve made?
The best was to leave [the USTA national training center in] Orlando and start doing things independently. Working with Jay Berger, paying more of my own bills, because I was having the USTA coach me. Then I was spending my own money, so you want to make the most of it, make sure you get the right guy. You don’t want to take any shortcuts. You just become a professional a lot quicker and my only regret is not doing that earlier. That’s not a dig on the USTA. If it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have even been in that position.
Few ATP guys are inspired by WTA players. You’ve spoken glowingly about Venus.
She’s an absolute badass. I learned more from her than any other active player. She’s brilliant – a fierce competitor. She works extremely differently than anyone else. The great ones think differently. And she’s hilarious – she has a great sense of humor. I enjoy being around her and learning from her.
She seems to be in her own dimension. How does her mind work?
She’s insanely competitive – as fierce as there’s ever been. Absolutely cannot tolerate losing – it makes her sick to think about it. She doesn’t even reflect on her wins. She stays in the moment. 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.