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Challenger Q&A: Opelka Nears Top 100 With Knoxville Crown

Reilly Opelka is quietly making a significant charge towards a Top 100 debut. The 21-year-old American entered the US Open at No. 173 in the ATP Rankings, and he is now projected to rise to a career-high No. 116 following his latest ATP Challenger Tour title in Knoxville.
Opelka was a machine all week on the campus of the University of Tennessee, not dropping a set en route to the final. There, he overcame a stern test from countryman Bjorn Fratangelo, eventually prevailing in a deciding tie-break 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(2). He fired 26 aces in one hour and 59 minutes. 
In five tournaments since the US Open, he has reached a pair of finals in Chicago and Cary and claimed a championship in Knoxville. It has been a career-year for the rising Michigan native, who also added a clay-court crown in Bordeaux, France, in May. He is the sixth player to win on both clay and hard in 2018.
One week after close friend Tommy Paul reigned in Charlottesville, Opelka became the seventh #NextGenATP American winner this year. 
‘Big O’ spoke to broadcaster Mike Cation after the final on Sunday…

Champion at @KnoxChallenger… Reilly Opelka!

The 🇺🇸 captures his second #ATPChallenger title of the year, becoming the sixth player to win on both clay and hard in 2018. 👏
— ATP Challenger Tour (@ATPChallenger) November 11, 2018
Congrats, Reilly. This was one of those matches that didn’t have a lot of rhythm. That disrupted Fratangelo at times today. Is that how your style plays out?
It is definitely how my style plays out. It’s not that I wasn’t necessarily going for more, but I wasn’t as consistent. That kind of messed him up a little bit. He felt no rhythm. Neither did I, but I felt that I was more comfortable in those situations.
These courts can be slower and it took away from your pace. But you had 26 aces and it seemed like you were serving at a high percentage all week long.
Yeah, for sure. I’ve been serving at a high percentage. I’d say that for the past six or seven months it’s been a huge improvement. I think my first serve percentage is up 15 per cent from last year. I’ve also improved my forehand return a lot and my return in general. Today, he served pretty well and I had a hard time with that, but overall in the tie-break I thought I did a great job. 
2018 Win-Loss Pct. Leaders (minimum 25 matches played)

Pct. (W-L)

(1) Vasek Pospisil
.784 (29-8)

(2) Christian Garin
.754 (46-15)


(3) Jordan Thompson
.753 (52-17)

(4) Guido Andreozzi
.731 (38-14)

(T-5) Reilly Opelka
.725 (29-11)

(T-5) Ugo Humbert
.725 (29-11) 

(7) Juan Ignacio Londero
.702 (40-17) 

A lot of the returns you hit today were heavy pace right into the body. That’s a lower margin return to take so you’re not going for those tougher angles. Going forward, is that something you’re going for more?
It depends on the opponent and depends on the second serve he hits. Obviously with my leverage I can hit some big, heavy shots if I have room to swing. I hit some returns where I hit it and came in. Some I went back and hit forehands and went back and hit backhands, so I had a nice variety of four or five different positions. Towards the end of the match I had him thinking. In the tie-break, the forehand return I hit on the ad side where I stepped back was big. If I would have stepped in, it would have been a tougher shot. I ripped the forehand and went up a double mini-break. That was pretty much all I needed right there.
You had a pretty rough stretch in Northern California (first round losses in Stockton and Fairfield). I don’t think you seemed very happy with being back on court. What turned it around?
Well those were just two horrible tournaments for me. I wasn’t in a good place mentally from the start. It was easier to be calmer and happier in an atmosphere like this. My housing family is great here and that’s very comforting for a player. You know that even if you lose, you’ll have good practices and plenty of guys to hit with. 
You are very close to the Top 100. Having mono took some time from your season, but you are very close to that milestone at the finish of the year. What does it mean to be right there as you enter the final week in Champaign?
I wouldn’t even celebrate Top 100, if we’re being honest. That’s not my long term goal. Yes, it would be nice. Like you said, mono really killed me this summer, but at the same time it allowed me to reset for 5-6 weeks. I’m pleased with how I’m playing now and my main goal is to stay healthy and put in a really good offseason. I think this offseason is going to be critical. I’ve been really beat up a lot this year and doing things this offseason to prevent that for 2019 is going to be critical.
Can you talk about your physio?
Yeah, Gary Kitchell has been great. He’s helped me out a lot these couple of weeks. I wasn’t even supposed to be playing here. I’m really thankful to have him on board. He’s a legend in the industry, doing his thing for the last 30 or so years. If I say a higher number, he’ll probably kill me [laughs]. It’s not a full-time thing, but just having him as a consultant is great. I know this week was stressful, but he brings a lot of energy that’s for sure.
We have seven-hour drives to Champaign. I know you like a nice steak dinner to celebrate, but you’re going to have to pick up something on the road. We’re in the south in Knoxville. What’s the meal of choice tonight?
Great question.
That’s why they pay me a lot of money for this.
I know. That’s a phenomenal question. I don’t know. We’ve been eating good here. I’ll let my team decide, because they’ll be the ones driving. There are definitely some good options though. It might have to be something quick, but I should take into consideration that I’m going to be sitting in a car for seven hours. I might want to go light and healthy. We have a big Suburban, so I’ll be lounging in the back and sleeping for five hours at least. 
Source: ATP