17 year old American Reilly Opelka just won the junior
Wimbledon boys title, and one thing is clear: he better
get used to being compared to fellow American John Isner. Like Isner, Opelka is over 6'9" and possesses
an extremely powerful (and high bouncing) serve. But where Isner has been limited by
deficiencies in other areas of his game, it looks like Opelka may be the player
we hoped Isner could develop into.
As was evident during the
boys final, Opelka has much more than just a big serve to offer. The junior world number four's backhand is
surprisingly good, though it shouldn't be such a surprise anytime an American
has a decent and technically sound backhand. He doesn't seem to have any trouble hitting strong
rally shots off that side, and seems comfortable going for backhand winners as
well. And while it's less of a surprise,
he's certainly no slouch off the
forehand side either. It's unlikely
movement will be the strength of anyone
as tall as Opelka, but he seemed to move pretty well for someone his height.
As has been said many times before, it's always risky to predict pro success based on a player's junior career. The vast majority of junior grand slam champions find little success in the pros, and only a select few make it big at the next level. But given all the free points Opelka should win from his serve combined with a solid ground game, it looks like he's a much safer bet than many other junior prospects. Sure he'll have his growing pains as he transitions to the pro tour, but in this day and age that's inevitable. More importantly, he has a game that should translate well at the next level even if the results don't really show for a couple more years. He also should be able to avoid much of the pressure that comes with being the next big thing in American men's tennis, as he's got about 6 other fellow American prospects to share the attention with.
When watching Isner play, it's easy to imagine how much success he'd be having if he were only slightly better in other areas of his game. He's improved since he first came on tour, but not to the degree many fans of American tennis had hoped. In a sport where the margins are so small, if Isner's backhand, movement, hands, etc were just a few percentages better, maybe he'd be a staple in the top 10 instead of the top 20. With the emergence of Opelka, we may not have to wonder any longer. We may finally get to see just how far a 6'10" serving machine can go when he's got the rest of the game to back it up.