Clay Is Not Opelka’s Thing, But He Keeps Winning

Reilly Opelka (photo: @atptour/Twitter)

ROME/WASHINGTON, May 14, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Reilly Opelka has reached his first ATP Masters 1000 semifinal at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia – and he’s done it on a surface that’s not exactly dear to him or most other American men. That’s right, he’s done it on red clay.

The 6-foot-11-inch, 23-year-old gentle giant from Delray Beach, Fla., beat a bonafide clay-court specialist, Federico Delbonis of Argentina, 7-5, 7-6 (2), on Friday to advance against nine-time Rome champion Rafael Nadal, who avenged his Madrid loss of a week ago to Alexander Zverev and beat the German 6-3, 6-4. Saturday’s semifinal between Opelka and Nadal will be their first meeting.

The 47th-ranked Opelka, who is making his Rome debut this week, saved each of the four break points he faced from Delbonis during their one hour and 41-minute match on the Grand Stand Arena. He’s not dropped a set en route to the semifinals – and his serve hasn’t been broken, either. Opelka fired 18 aces in his quarterfinal match against Delbonis, which improved his total this week in the Italian capital city to 77. He’s committed just four double faults.

Delbonis, who was playing in his first Masters 1000 quarterfinal, won five matches from qualifying through the third round, including wins against 12th seed David Goffin and No. 21 Felix Auger-Aliassime.

So, what does Opelka have to say about all of the fuss and surprise? During an on-court interview following his victory against the 64th-ranked Argentine qualifier, he expressed his surprise at reaching his first Masters 1000 semifinal: “I am surprised. Clay is not really my thing. Not much of an American thing. It is probably just a fluke, but I’ll run with it.”

Opelka is proud of the way he’s played this week in Rome.

“I’ve definitely served well. I hit my spot really well today, especially in big moments,” he said. “I think that has been critical. I have stayed calm [and on] big points, I have delivered. …

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that things are starting to click now. I’ve not only put in a lot of work, but I’ve changed things. If you keep doing the same thing and getting the same results, sometimes you get frustrated. So, we switched up a lot of my training and technical things and it’s paid off.”

Nadal keeps hopes alive for a 10th Rome title

World No. 3 and second seed Rafael Nadal ended a three-match losing streak to Alexander Zverev with his 6-3, 6-4 victory over the World No. 6 Friday afternoon in two hours on Campo Centrale. The triumph lifted Nadal into his 12th semifinal at Foro Italico.

The nine-time Rome champion was solid in saving all eight break points he faced during the second set en route to beating Zverev for the sixth time in nine meetings. The Spaniard hit a nifty backhand volley from the side of the net on his first match-point opportunity to wrap up a 12-point game and clinch the victory over Zverev. It came just a week after the German ousted Nadal in the Madrid quarterfinals.

“[I am] happy. I played a very solid match with not many mistakes, playing the way that I have to,” Nadal said during a post-match interview that followed his quarterfinal victory. “[It is] an important victory for me against a great player.”

Nadal, who outpointed Zverev 72-61, hit 19 winners to 15 unforced errors – fewer than Zverev’s 258 winners and 26 unforced errors) – and won 79 percent of his second-serve points. He converted three of six break points while Zverev broke Nadal just once in 10 tries.

“I think I played more solid than in Madrid,” Nadal admitted. “At the same time, conditions are different. In Madrid, [Sascha] was able to create a lot of damage with his serve and then with the first shot. Here, the situation is a little bit different. [These are] a little bit more normal conditions on the clay, so I was able to control a little bit more the game than in Madrid.”

As the 34-year-old Nadal readies to face unseeded American Reilly Opelka in Saturday’s semifinals, he’s just two wins from tying Novak Djokovic‘s record of 36 ATP Masters 1000 titles. A Rome title would also give him 10 or more titles at a single event for the fourth time, to go with his 13 Roland Garros crowns, 12 Barcelona titles and 11 Monte-Carlo championships.

What does Rafa think about facing Opelka, whom he will concede a 10-inch height advantage to? “A big challenge against a player who has almost an unreturnable serve,” he said. “He is playing well. I need to be very focused with my serve and then try to be ready to accept and be patient on the return. That is what I am looking for.”