Reilly Opelka might be the biggest thing in United States men’s tennis these days, both because he just won the boys’ title at Wimbledon, and at age 17, he is a smidge over 6 feet 10 inches.
Obviously, this is a young man whose road to success must have included such dietary staples as spinach and Cheerios (heavy on the milk and wheat germ, of course).
“Uh, no, not really,’’ said the good-natured Opelka, a prized product of the USTA’s training program in Boca Raton, Fla. “I think it was maybe more like cheeseburgers, Lucky Charms, and a lot of Chipotle.’’
Be it through unconventional dietary habits or otherwise, the hard-hitting Opelka (top serve at Wimbledon: 134 miles per hour) is on the move, and he is not alone on a burgeoning list of promising young Yanks. US men’s tennis, in a severe drought on the international stage for most of this new millennium, suddenly has a bumper crop of talented young racket slingers possibly capable of inserting their names in the game’s everyday discussion, reminiscent of such famed Americans as Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, along with Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Andy Roddick.
The hard-belting Roddick, recently retired after perennially finishing ranked among the game’s top 10, was the last US male to be ranked No. 1 in the world, dating to Nov. 1, 2003. He also is the last American male to win one of the four Grand Slam events, capturing the US Open in ’03 for his lone Slams gold star. Roddick also fell to the legendary Roger Federer three times (’04, ’05, ’09) in the Wimbledon championship match.
Now there is a new bunch of red-white-and-blue belters, including the towering Opelka, as well as Tommy Paul, a fellow USTA trainee who this summer dumped another Yank, Taylor Fritz, to capture the French Open junior title. It’s the first time since 1977, when McEnroe won the French and Van Winitsky took Wimbledon and the US Open, that two American males have won junior Slams titles in the same year.
And there’s more. Just last year, Noah Rubin, proud son of Rockville Center, Long Island, also captured the Wimbledon boys’ title. Fritz, a 6-4 Californian, was recently ranked No. 1 in the world among all juniors. Another pair of 17-year-old US-born males, Frances Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov, also have been ripping up the court. All six budding stars are expected to play as juniors in the upcoming US Open (Aug. 31-Sept. 13), with perhaps one or two nosing their way into the main draw.
Could the US men finally be on the verge of a new golden era?
“I think we are going to have players,’’ said Diego Moyano, coach of both Opelka and Paul at the USTA training facility. “I do think we are going to have a good bunch of players in three years, a good generation in 3-4 years. I don’t know if they are going to be as good as McEnroe or Connors, Agassi or Sampras, but they are going to be good players, yes.’’
Martin Blackman, newly appointed GM of USTA Player Development, believes what he calls “healthy peer pressure’’ within the pack will help drive the newbies to success.
“I think it is a very important ingredient,’’ said Blackman, 45, who took over the GM’s role from Patrick McEnroe. “I think what we saw in the late ’80s with [Jim] Courier, Sampras, Agassi, [Michael] Chang, and a lot of other guys that were very good — some not quite that good — was the result of those guys really beating up on each other, making each other better.’’
Part of that successful formula, added Blackman, is what he termed the “demonstration effect.’’
“So when you have one player in a peer group that has a really good result,’’ added Blackman, “then all of a sudden the other guys in the group think, ‘Well, hey, I can beat that guy. I’ve been playing him for three years. I can do that.’ And then somebody else pops up. And I think that is what we are going to get with this group of boys if we keep them on track.’’
In a game where turning pro at a young age — as Opelka did just weeks ago — is considered the norm, accomplished players typically don’t hit their stride until their mid- or late-20s. The half-dozen US hopefuls now in their later teens, if they ultimately vie for Centre Court at Wimbledon, wouldn’t be expected to arrive there for perhaps five to eight years.
“It’s definitely going to take time,’’ said Opelka, reached recently in Binghamton, N.Y., where he played in a USTA qualifier. “All of us have a long way to go. Especially now, there’s not as many guys who break through at 18 like they used to. I think in a few years, I really hope this group, this generation, is known as some of the best players from the US.’’
One or two among the current crop, agreed Opelka, could begin to emerge in a year or two, noting that the talented Tiafoe or Kozlov could be that guy. But overall he figures it will be at least a 3-5-year climb into the thick of the tour ranks.
“You look at the top 100 now on the men’s side,’’ Opelka said, “and I think the average age there is, like, 28. So, yeah, I played the Wimbledon juniors . . . but I have an extremely long way to go.’’
Born in Michigan, Opelka moved with his family to Palm Coast, Fla., near Daytona, at age 4, and soon took up tennis only on a recreational basis. He also loved basketball and was anything but a tennis court version of a rink rat. In fact, he said, he didn’t go full-immersion into tennis until nearly age 13, when he, his mother, and sister moved to an apartment in Boca Raton when he enrolled in the USTA training program.
“My family’s really sacrificed for me, which I appreciate,’’ said Opelka, who finally moved into USTA dorms at age 15. “My mom didn’t want to give me up at 12½, I guess.’’
Actually, had it not been for a chance encounter on a golf course near Daytona years earlier, Opelka might not ever have pursued tennis. George Opelka, his young son just beginning to swing a racket, went out solo for a round of golf, only to be invited to pair up with another solo golfer that day by the name of Tom Gullikson. A regular Tour name in the ’70s and ’80s, Gullikson had a long career that included scores of Slams events, both singles and doubles.
Gullikson quickly struck up a friendship with the Opelka family, one that now has Reilly saying, “Tom Gullikson taught me everything.’’
“Amazing . . . they meet on a golf course in Gulf Coast Florida and Tom says to my dad, ‘Hey, you want to play?’ ’’ recalled Opelka. “My dad knew nothing about tennis and he ends up golfing with the Davis Cup captain and the US Olympic coach. Tom’s been just unbelievable to my whole family. He’s always stayed interested in me, my game. He works with the USTA and I hit with him whenever he’s in Boca. I could not be more thankful for everything he’s done.’’
Blackman said he sees Opelka developing into “a classic big man,’’ one who can build his game around a booming serve and sure forehand, yet still move with enough agility not to be erased on long rallies. On the whole, he fits well into a group Blackman believes will bring the US men’s game to a new, fruitful era.
“I wouldn’t want to put that kind of pressure on their shoulders,’’ said Blackman, when asked if this could be the next crop of US stars. “But I really believe that this is the beginning of our way back to the top of the game. When I see these guys all in the same peer group and I see the boys coming up behind them, I do believe this is the beginning of us getting back to where we belong.’’