A Giant with Top Ten Potential

September 6, 2015


The night sessions during the second week of the Open are less enticing than those of the first week, because play on the outside courts winds down by shortly after sunset. Of course, one might get a great match on Ashe, but what of it? From 90% or more of the seats in Ashe, it’s a better experience to watch the match on television.


On the other hand, tickets over Labor Day weekend are hard to get, and one learns to be satisfied with what one can scrounge. My wife got us tickets through a business connection and was even kind enough to wait on the longer security line for those with bags while I hoped to scoot through the no-bag line. In the end, the lines moved at a similar pace, because there were more metal detectors on the bag line, which seems appropriate. After the gates opened at 6:00 and we finally got through by around 6:10, we tried to get into Armstrong to catch the end of Feliciano Lopez’s unexpectedly easy victory over Fabio Fognini, but the lines were too long and the match too near its conclusion.


We looked for the first court we could get into and found ourselves on Court 10, for a junior match between Yosuke Watanuki of Japan (not to be confused with his 25-year-old countryman Yusuke Watanuki) and Manuel Pena Lopez of Argentina, both of whom are still 17. In the background, it was possible to see the skeleton of the future Grandstand as well as Terrace on the Park, where my wife and I had gotten married.


Watanuki led 6-3 1-0 when we arrived and we left with him leading 6-3 4-3, on the way to a 6-3 6-3 victory. Both players are cut from the modern mold: staying back as much as possible and hitting big groundstrokes, preferably forehands. Watanuki emulates his countryman Kei Nishikori by placing one foot in front of the other while waiting to return serve: in this case, the right foot in the deuce court and the left foot in the ad court. At one point, Watanuki had Pena Lopez so badly on the run that he sent him sprawling, his racquet flying toward the net.


We left before the conclusion because I wanted to catch Reilly Opelka, the Wimbledon junior champion, on Court 17. Opelka was born in Michigan and now lives in Florida. He is listed at 6’10” and looks it, giving rise to inevitable comparisons with John Isner. As an observer wrote in July, Opelka could become a better version of Isner: his backhand has an offensive component, and he moves surprisingly well. Not shockingly, he has a big forehand and a huge serve, which topped out at 135 mph in his match against the Canadian left-hander Alejandro Tabilo of Toronto, a product of the IMG Academy.


When we arrived, Tabilo was serving at 0-3 in the first set. Things quickly got worse for him, as Opelka broke at 15 and then held for 5-0. Opelka looked like a man playing against a boy. Tabilo avoided getting bageled by holding in the sixth game, throwing in one of several serve-and-volley points he sprinkled through his service games. Opelka served out the set without incident.


The second set opened ominously for Tabilo, whose serve was broken with the help of three double faults. But Opelka took his foot off the accelerator and let Tabilo break right back. The big American restored order in the next game, breaking for a 2-1 lead, and after that he coasted to the finish line, 6-1 6-4.


In the second set, we realized that we were sitting two rows behind Opelka’s parents and aunt and uncle. His father, George, a big man, was given away by his credential. (I think the woman in the right of this photo is Reilly’s mom.) George snapped away with his camera as his son advanced to the second round.


I don’t have a great record of predicting who will or won’t make it on the tour, but I can’t imagine Opelka topping out any worse than the top fifty. How much further he will go — top twenty, top ten, top five? — is impossible to say with confidence, but he has the tools to compete on the top level.


So much for the outside courts and the day session, alas. With Genie Bouchard having given Roberta Vinci a walkover, play on Armstrong was finished for the day, and the only day session match still underway was a mixed doubles contest between Anastasia Rodionova/Max Mirnyi and Raquel Kops-Jones/Raven Klaasen on the Grandstand. I would have liked to see that match, but I thought the chances of getting onto the Grandstand were too slim, so we went to Ashe to see Novak Djokovic against Roberto Bautista Agut. With one more visit to the Open this year, on Wednesday, I think I may fail to offer a proper farewell to the Grandstand, which is being demolished after this year’s event and usually goes out of commission after Labor Day.


The American flag used to fly above the press box in Ashe, but that space has been superseded by the superstructure of the forthcoming roof. The flag now hangs from that superstructure. In addition, Ashe now has big screens on all four sides of the arena.


When we arrived, Bautista Agut was serving at 3-4 in the opening set, and Djokovic broke with a drop shot followed by an angled passing shot. Djokovic held to win the first set, 6-3. He jumped to a quick lead in the second set, breaking in the third game, but Bautista Agut came to life late in the set, reeling off four straight games from 2-4 to tie the match.


Bautista Agut has a nice game, but he’s not strong enough to trouble the top players. Throughout the match, Djokovic played much closer to the baseline than his opponent, utilizing his abilities to stretch and to half-volley deep balls. Bautista Agut has lost all ten sets he has played against Roger Federer, never getting closer than 6-4; lost to Rafael Nadal 6-4 6-3 in their only meeting; and lost all five sets he has played against Andy Murray. Djokovic is the one top player he has given a little bit of a struggle, taking him to a second-set tiebreak in Dubai in 2013 before copping a set last night. Take a step down from the top tier, and Bautista Agut can make some trouble, winning sets in two of his three matches with Kei Nishikori; beating Richard Gasquet once and losing once in a third-set tiebreak; and winning two of five from Tomas Berdych (interestingly, winning two of three on hard courts, while Berdych has swept their two clay matches).


In the third set, Bautista Agut played a disastrous fifth game, having his serve broken and squandering all his challenges. The break held up, as Djokovic cruised through the set, 6-4. Djokovic broke at love to start the fourth set, but Bautista Agut showed signs of life when he broke back for 2-2. He couldn’t keep the momentum going, as Djokovic broke back in the very next game with a backhand drop volley that he liked so much that he cupped his hand to his ear, preening for applause. Djokovic broke again in the seventh game, at love, to serve for the match at 5-2. He couldn’t serve out the match but then broke Bautista Agut yet again to close out the match as the clock neared 10:30, 6-3 4-6 6-4 6-3.


Not being night owls, my wife and I then headed home, missing Kristina Mladvenovic’s three-set win over the thirteenth seed, Ekaterina Makarova. On Wednesday, my goal is to see some doubles and junior play in addition to (or in place of) the action in Ashe. Let’s touch base in six or seven years to see how far Reilly Opelka rises through the rankings.