Reilly Opelka has shown great form at this week’s Internazionali BNL d’Italia, reaching his second ATP Masters 1000 quarter-final without dropping a set. On Thursday, he ousted red-hot Russian Aslan Karatsev, who defeated World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev in the second round.
Nobody would have expected such a run if they knew the 23-year-old arrived in Rome on a six-match losing streak, carrying a 2-7 record on the season. The big-serving right-hander is one of the most dangerous players on the ATP Tour, but despite playing some good matches early in his slump, he slowly began to lose confidence.
Following the Miami Open presented by Itau, where he suffered his fifth consecutive loss, things got worse when after the tournament Opelka contracted COVID-19. He had four days of bad symptoms, the most significant of which was “really bad heartburn”.
“It was keeping me up at night and I was shivering. The heartburn would get bad whenever I would lay down or even sit down. I literally spent the entire first night in my backyard doing laps around my pool in sweatpants and it was super hot out,” Opelka said. “I had to walk in order for the heartburn not to be there. It was there for two or three days and I had only had heartburn once or twice before… It was really weird and then I was throwing up and then I did have a really bad fever and aches and headache and stuff.”
When Opelka isn’t playing his best tennis, he is eager to practise and work on his game. But when the two-time ATP Tour titlist tested positive, he had to quarantine.
“It was kind of like getting kicked when you’re down,” Opelka said. “To be in a dark place with my tennis as it was after a tough loss in Miami, a bunch of tough losses, the one thing I wanted to do was get back out there and work.”
Opelka went through a difficult period dealing with the virus. But the time in which he was forced to get away from his normal training routine allowed him to turn the page on his tennis struggles.
“I reset completely, which I needed to do,” Opelka said. “I was able to spend some time training, I felt refreshed. [When I came back in] Madrid I was still rusty… but I’m still glad I went because it made me comfortable enough for this week. Now I feel comfortable and I have some confidence in me.”
Now Opelka, who said he is “completely fine” in terms of his recovery from COVID-19, is firing on all cylinders at the Foro Italico, and he has a big opportunity to reach his first Masters 1000 semi-final against Argentine qualifier Federico Delbonis.
It’s not a coincidence that Opelka is playing well after a few enjoyable days in Madrid and Rome. The World No. 47 has historically enjoyed good results when he is having fun outside of tennis. Opelka won his first ATP Tour title at the 2019 New York Open, during which he would travel to Manhattan in the evenings for New York Fashion Week events. Before entering the Internazionali BNL d’Italia bubble, he got his cultural fix in.
“I was practising and I went to some art museums and art galleries. I actually went with Venus Williams to the Borghese Museum and I got my arts and crafts in prior to checking into [the] Rome [bubble],” Opelka said. “In Madrid when I lost, I checked out of the bubble hotel the same night and I went to the Prado Museum, which was probably the greatest museum I’ve ever been to. This one was unreal.”
As Opelka puts it, he is “a guy who’s on the go”. The 23-year-old certainly does his job and focusses on becoming the best tennis player he can be. But during non-COVID times, it is rare to find him simply hanging out in his hotel room.
Two years ago in Basel, Opelka was set to play Roberto Bautista Agut in the quarter-finals. But a musician friend from Florida, Blackbear, was performing at a concert an hour and a half away. The American went to the concert, but there were no taxis back to Basel at the late hour. He stayed in a local hotel overnight, woke up, had breakfast, returned to Basel, where he defeated Bautista Agut in three sets.
“There have been some matches where I think most guys would stress out about some situations I’ve put myself in,” Opelka said. “I’ve been in some restaurants before big matches with a course-tasting menu with some weird food on it, just trying different things that I probably shouldn’t do before a match. I don’t normally do it. But I don’t really stress that stuff.
“It’s not a weekly occurrence. I’m not a partier, I’m not drinking. I’m going to enjoy [life], and I don’t sleep much as it is.”
That isn’t by choice. Opelka generally doesn’t get much sleep, which is something he is working on. The 23-year-old wears a sleep ring at night to track it.
“I can stay in my hotel room and have no plans and I won’t fall asleep before 1 a.m., no chance. It’s just how I’m wired,” Opelka said. “I’ll wake up at 6, no alarm, wide awake. Last night I was first on at 10 a.m. so I had to get up at 6. I wear an Oura ring to track my sleep because my sleep is really bad… but last night I slept 56 minutes.”
How did Opelka respond? He defeated Karatsev, the breakthrough star of 2021, in straight sets. Not bad for a player who began this event with a 2-10 tour-level record on clay.
“I actually love clay. I think I should be extremely dangerous on it, depending on getting the right conditions. I grew up on it and my run in 2018 was pretty good,” said Opelka, who won the Bordeaux Challenger on clay that year. “I think I have a lot of potential to be dangerous on clay, similar to Isner.”
Opelka gives a lot of credit for his success to his team, led by coaches Jay Berger and Jean-Yves Aubone. According to the American, Berger “changed my view on the sport completely. He’s made me a total student of the game, a total fan of the game. It’s not a job for me. I love being home when I’m training.
“I think if a lot of guys lost five first rounds in a row, they would consider rearranging things,” Opelka said. “That never even crossed my mind. If anyone suggested anything like that, it wouldn’t even be an option.”
Now Opelka can put his recent tennis and health struggles behind him and focus on his chance to reach the Rome semi-finals. But don’t be surprised when you see that he is not tense at all on the court Friday.
“I want to win a Grand Slam. Am I there yet? No. These are just areas for me to keep learning, keep getting better and I want to get my ranking up to a point where I can hopefully be seeded at the Slams,” Opelka said. “Obviously these tournaments matter for me, but I’m not going to be playing my best tennis until 2024, 2025.”