By Giri Nathan
Reilly Opelka is one of the most frank conversationalists in tennis. Lately he’s been dividing his time between Los Angeles and Delray Beach until he heads out for the Australian Open, which, per reports this week, will begin on Feb. 8. Because we had such a good time in May, we called him up again to talk about the tennis restart; the uneasy feeling of bubble life; the worst tournament he’s ever played; a new gambling-funded model for Challengers; and what the tennis commentariat can learn from, of all people, Joe Rogan. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Giri Nathan: You’ve had some strong critiques about how the ATP was handling the suspended season. How do you think they handled the restart during the pandemic?
Reilly Opelka: So the restart, I think there were a lot of positives. I don’t want to completely critique the ATP all the time, I know things aren’t gonna be perfect. But I thought it was great, from the standpoint of, everyone tried their best. I gotta be more understanding of the time that we’re in, and how difficult it is with each country, and how many things are out of the ATP’s control. The things that I think they could have done a better job of, within their control—I think our execs should be at every tournament in the restart. If you’re gonna ask your players to play and you’re going to put on these events, I think you gotta show up as an exec.
I think the ATP did a good job of keeping tennis relevant, and just fighting and clawing without much budget; they don’t have much money. To put on what they did was pretty great. I think it says a lot about the players—about the Dominic Thiems, the [Diego] Schwartmans, the [Roberto] Bautista Aguts, [Alexander] Zverevs, [Daniil] Medvedevs. Those guys that have $20 mil in the bank, they don’t need to play right now, especially at an ATP 250, where the winner makes $12K, but they did it, and it was almost out of charity. They went, and they competed, and they played unbelievable, high-quality tennis. As much respect given to those guys as possible for playing, and playing as if they’re playing for $1 million each week, and that’s not easy to do for them. I think the ATP is extremely grateful for them doing that.
GN: After the restart, you played in the New York bubble, then you played in Paris, played in St. Petersburg and Antwerp. At which of these events did you feel most comfortable, just in terms of the protocol?
RO: I thought the US Open did an unbelievable job. There was one unfortunate situation with Guido Pella and Hugo Dellien. Other than that, I thought the US Open was as good as it gets. I thought the French Open was done really well. St. Petersburg was done well—obviously there was an incident there, that was pretty brutal. That whole story didn’t come out, and it made a player look like he was in the wrong, when it was actually the opposite. The player wasn’t protected. And the rules were bent, and someone’s safety and family were at risk. And there was no protection.
But outside of that situation, that tournament did a great job. St. Petersburg is a COVID-infested city. High amounts of cases there, same with Paris. And not many cases among players. They provided a great environment, great testing as well, and the most normal event, where I felt normal as a player. I wasn’t so worried. St. Petersburg was really, really well done. For a non–Grand Slam, that’s as good a tournament as it could get.
GN: To go back briefly to that Sam Querrey situation, how do you wish it had been handled by the authorities in St. Petersburg?
RO: Well, the rule book said one thing, and the authorities said another. So that’s where the confusion came about. The statement released on that situation completely contradicted what was in writing that we had as players. The rule was, if anyone in their camp tests positive they would quarantine in the Four Seasons Hotel, which we were staying at, which Sam was more than happy to do. He was 100 percent ready to follow that guideline, and he came into the country with that assumption because that was always what was in writing. Had that been in writing, had it been proposed what was going to happen, then Sam wouldn’t have brought his family.
GN: Moving on to Antwerp, what was your experience there?
RO: That was the worst tournament I’ve ever played. I’m 33 in the world, and I want to be top 32 and get seeded at a Grand Slam. I don’t want to be a complaining, insensitive guy, but if I’m running a business here—like I am—I want to be seeded in Australia. I don’t want to fly all the way to Australia and play Novak [Djokovic] in the first round. I want to be great. I play to make money. And I want to avoid playing Novak or Fabio [Fognini] or [John] Isner or [David] Goffin in the first round. I’d much rather wait until the third round—that’s a $200,000 difference. That was a big goal of mine, so looking at it through my lens, 33 in the world, I lose to Borna Coric in a tough match. I’m playing the semis in doubles with Alexander Bublik. And I finish. And if you look at the situation of how to get to Antwerp: St. Petersburg, Moscow. Moscow, London. London, change airports, to Brussels. Brussels to Antwerp, get my test done. And by the time I get to my hotel, I play the next day.
I don’t want to sound insensitive here. I flew private so I could give myself the best chance to do well in Antwerp, to get there early and prepare, and it’s unfortunate that the tournament conditions were really, really brutal. We were bubbled up, and the testing was safe, and that’s the main priority. But you get there and there’s no practice courts really at all. Practice-court situation, I was playing in tents. It was super windy, lights were moving around in the middle of the courts, it was crazy. It was indoors, but it was like it was going to fall over. And then I lose in the first round. And you don’t make much money—which, all good, I’m there to play, I want to be top 32 in the world. And I went home, and I lose a lot of money.
And even if I won that tournament, I wouldn’t have broken even. And that’s the point I want to make: It’s remarkable what the players are doing, because it’s the hardest job in the world, right now, in sports, is winning a 250. You got to beat Zverev, you got to beat Bautista Agut, [Alex] de Minaur, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Diego Schwartzman to make 10,000 euros. Then you factor in hotel, food, coach—you’re still in the red, by beating all them. So I can’t stress enough how amazing those guys are. Bautista Agut definitely doesn’t need that money, and the rankings froze, they’re not going anywhere. And we’re doing it the safe way. If anyone tests positive, we’re quarantining, we’re not putting anyone at risk. It’s simply for, like, the greater good of tennis. And [Karen] Khachanov has been the biggest advocate of taking a pay cut, doing whatever is best for the sport. I gotta give them props. They’re better ambassadors for tennis than I am, and it motivates me.
GN: The plans for the Aussie Open are firming up. How does that sound to you? It sounds like players will be tested a couple times and they’ll be able to train as they quarantine.
RO: There’s no doubt that it’s going to be the safest environment that we’ve been in, you know. From the media side of it, I guess, they’re not gonna have much to complain about, because this is strict and as safe as possible. Maybe they can, like, actually enjoy the tennis.
GN: I’ll do my best, yeah.
RO: No, no, it’s not you. I read some articles, and I’m like, why do you work in tennis? It just seems like you really hate. I saw a few tweets that I wish I didn’t see. It’s hard for me to bite my tongue when I feel strongly about something. I see one: Thiem is playing or, I think, Schwartzman, playing Zverev, where it’s like, Can we agree how bad this fifth set is? This is terrible tennis. I mean, these are the guys that essentially are putting food on your table, your job is to report tennis. And there are a lot of people watching these two right now. It’s 100 degrees, 80% humidity. They’re playing for four and a half hours. And they’re killing each other, playing 30-ball rallies. And the fact they’re still standing—I compare it to Joe Rogan commentating a UFC fight. You’ve got [Justin] Gaethje and Tony Ferguson in the fifth round, and they can barely stand up. And they’re dead, almost dead from actually almost killing each other. You don’t see Joe Rogan saying, Oh, this needs to be shorter, or Look at these guys, they can’t stand, what an embarrassment. It’s like, no, Joe Rogan’s sitting there like, I don’t get how these guys are both alive, I don’t get how they’re still standing, I don’t get how they’re still fighting. It’s like, show some respect to the guys, to the sport.
GN: You talk about the travel logistics being so difficult at this time. What are some of the other surreal elements of playing tennis in these bubbles right now, something that the fans don’t realize?
RO: You’re in a shoebox of a room. Your life is the hotel room, then to the courts, then back to the room. The beauty of our sport is being able to see and be in cool places. Me being a kid from North Florida, originally from Michigan—not to generalize, but most people from small towns in Florida and Michigan, their experience of Italy is going to the Olive Garden. So I’m extremely grateful that I get to go to some of these places, and I’ve been really appreciative, even though I’m uncomfortable, let’s say, in Europe, and it’s different for me, I’ve grown to like it. I’ve found a way to enjoy it and make the most of it.
And so bubbling up, being in your room, not being able to experience that, for me, it’s tough. Everyone’s at home, everyone’s struggling, so I don’t want to sound insensitive to people who have real problems, who are hungry, who don’t have food, who don’t even have a small room with themselves. That’s why I really take offense to people criticizing guys for playing tennis right now, for coming back. When they’re throwing back for the love of the game, and no one’s putting anyone at risk. No one’s putting anyone at risk, and the 1.2% rate on it, the numbers that we’ve contained the virus to, it’s very minimal. The ATP has enforced it as much as possible. I don’t take well to criticizing the players right now. I think what they’re doing is remarkable, especially the top guys.
GN: How do you feel out there on the court? I know a lot of players talked about kind of lacking their normal motivation, whether that’s due to no crowds, or just the overall stress level of the pandemic.
RO: What’s been a struggle for me is actually practice. It’s so nice to get home, when you’ve been in the bubble in a hotel room, and it’s so nice to feel like you have a breath of fresh air. And practicing right now, yeah, I’m really motivated to get in really good shape, eat clean and get strong, and make sure my body is in the best place it could possibly be. But when we’re on the court, I’m practicing, and I get an email, I get an alert on my phone, from the ATP, the Australian Open was pushed back, and the uncertainty. It’s like, Hey, I’m out here on the court, suffering right now, for what? There’s so many things out of our control. Learning to cope with that, you can learn that there’s people that have bigger issues. It’s a learning curve, it opens your mind to real problems.
GN: You had some top 10 wins, including over Medvedev, arguably the best hard-court player in the world right now. How are you feeling in terms of your confidence in your game?
RO: I’m feeling pretty good. My body really let me down. For the first four months of lockdown, I didn’t have gym access, I didn’t have much to do for exercise. So I knew I was at risk; my knee really flared up in Cincinnati, and I had to withdraw from that, unfortunately. And then I played Goffin in a lot of pain. And then after that, I didn’t hit a ball, literally. I barely played until two days before the French Open. I flew to Paris, as late as I possibly could for the COVID testing, with zero practice, absolutely zero tennis under my belt. So I knew I was going over there to Europe to play and just kind of progress as much as I could as the trip went on. I lost in the first round of the French, and I trained out of [Patrick] Mouratoglou’s with my coach, and we got in a lot of good work. And I went to St. Petersburg. I played a little better, really well against Medvedev for sure, and didn’t play great in Antwerp. There were some positives to take from it—like you said, I beat probably the best hard-court player in the world right now. No doubt, my body is my number-one goal right now. I’m not going to miss one day in the gym until I go to Australia.
GN: I’m a big Diego Schwartzman fan, and you played him in Cincinnati. Obviously, there’s a big contrast between you guys. Is that a fun matchup for you? Do you guys both enjoy that matchup?
RO: Honestly, I think Diego hates it. It’s the most physical matchup for him. I get why. I played really well there. He doesn’t make many mistakes, he finds a way to make that rhythm. Then he gets to a match with me, and he doesn’t. It’s obvious why, that’s just our game styles. I’m sure we’ll have many matchups in the future and he’s gonna beat me. The reason for some of my success with him is, if I’m serving well, if I’m over 75% of first serves in, it’s a nightmare for him. He breaks serve over 35% of the time. And if I’m first-serving 75% of the time, as good a returner as you are, if you can’t touch the ball, you can’t play it. And you know, his only weakness is a weaker second serve, that’s the physics of it. And maybe a double fault once or twice there, and I block a return, and he gets a little nervous, he’s got no rhythm. That was kind of the story of our last couple matches, but he’s been super difficult and the margins are so slim, he easily could have beaten me in multiples. I guarantee, if you ask him what his worst match of the reopening of the tour was, he would say against me in Cincinnati, and he’s right. And I think he’d probably tell you the same for the year before, when we played in Miami. But definitely, it is a contrast in styles.
GN: Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil did a lot of work to start the Professional Tennis Players Association. What are your feelings about that project? Were you on board?
RO: Yeah, I was on board. I think it’s a great move. I think that it was just frustrating for me to see a guy like Novak, that gets the negative press on things that aren’t true, right? He’s a really, really friendly guy. At the US Open, he’s at the point now, every time he’s entering a Slam, he’s going for history, as the greatest of all time. And he doesn’t need to take the time to come up to me after a match, and just talk, and ask how my knee’s doing. It’s not common. It’s not like we grew up together—we’re in different generations. He’s very, very aware of the younger generations. He’s very aware of a lot of the women’s players. He loves tennis. He cares about the sport.
GN: What were the main changes you’d like to see the PTPA bring to tennis?
RO: I’d like to see them regulate the gambling.
GN: Yeah, we talked about this a bit last time.
RO: Yeah, I would, I would really like to see a push for that. That solves so many problems, if you regulate the gambling—which is going to happen no matter what—and they make a lot of money. I know, because every time I lose, I get all these death threats. And tennis is a very bet-upon sport and it goes on all year. Gambling companies, I’m sure they want write-offs, and want to throw money into it. At the Challenger level—I think every single one should be played for $30,000. And you have guys from 75 to 200 playing for 30 grand at the Challenger level each week, expenses covered, that would be great. I think they’d be really happy about that.
And I think that that’s definitely a focus. I’m sure they have more things to tackle, but that sounds so easy to do. I think Vasek’s done a great job of organizing everything and doing all the dirty work that I personally don’t know how to do. When he was injured he had the time to do it. I hate phone calls back-to-back all day long. He did so much dirty work for free. Because again, for one reason: He just cared a lot about [tennis].
Above: Reilly Opelka during his match against Borna Coric in in St. Petersburg in October. (Getty)