At 6-10, Reilly Opelka is usually mistaken for a basketball player, and through middle school, he was dabbling in basketball as well as his first love, tennis. But when it came time to choose, there was no question he was putting away the high tops and sticking to his rackets.
It seems like he made the right choice. Opelka, a 17-year-old from Palm Coast, advanced to the third round of the Orange Bowl International Tennis Championships on Wednesday, upsetting fourth-seeded Yunseong Chung of Korea 6-3, 6-4 in the Boys 18s division. The unseeded Opelka is coming off the biggest win of his career, a title at the Eddie Herr Championships last week.
A year ago, Opelka entered the Orange Bowl as a 660th-ranked wild card. Since then, he has grown six inches and skyrocketed to the top 50 in the world junior rankings. He trains at the U.S. Tennis Association High Performance Center in Boca Raton.
“I’m lucky I haven’t really had any of the growing pains or knee problems a lot of guys get when they grow fast,” Opelka said. “I’ve just had to adjust my game to my height each time I grow a few inches. It’s obviously a different game from a guy who’s 5-10.”
Opelka rarely plays anyone his size. One time he did was last summer at the U.S. Open, when he was asked to warm up 6-9 John Isner for his match. “He’s definitely the tallest guy I’ve ever hit against,” Opelka said. “It was a good experience for me.”
Opelka’s father is 6-6, and his mother is 6-0, so there was little doubt he would be tall. He just never figured he would be this tall.
“I get asked six or seven times a day if I’m a basketball player,” he said. “And I do love shooting hoops with my friends. But I like individual sports better, so I stuck to tennis.”
He learned to play from former tour star Tom Gullickson, who met Opelka’s father on a Palm Coast golf course. “Gully offered to hit with me, and he really is the one who taught me the game, so I’m very lucky,” he said.
Other Americans who advanced Wednesday include Stefan Kozlov, Cici Bellis, Elle Douglas, Taylor Fritz, Caroline Dolehide, Michael Mmoh, Sam Riffice and Alex Rybakov. Top seed Andrey Rublev of Russia also won.