Opelka stands tall in the land of opportunity

 - Chris Oddo

The No.32 seed and three other Americans hope to create draw chaos on Friday at Roland-Garros

Reilly Opelka, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Andre Ferreira/FFT

Since the moment the 2021 Roland-Garros men’s singles draw was revealed in Paris, there has been chatter about the enormous opportunities that exist in the wide open lower half.

As the third round beckons, a quartet of hard-charging Americans hope to transform that chatter to screams of surprise. 

For the first time since 1996, four American men - Reilly Opelka, John Isner, Marcos Giron and Steve Johnson - have reached the third round at Roland-Garros. On Friday these Americans in Paris hope to become the interlopers in a section of the draw that has already been deemed the “land of opportunity”. 

Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are all famously snuggled into the top half, while No.4 seed Dominic Thiem has already fallen to the upset bug in the lower half. It’s a dream scenario for Grand Slam aspirants in that section of the draw, like Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev

But they aren’t the only ones dreaming big… 

Reilly Opelka, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Andre Ferreira/FFT

For Opelka, who will square off with No.2 seed Medvedev in round three on Friday, a dream run would have been difficult to conceive a month ago. Entering Rome with a lifetime record of 2-10 on the surface, the bomb-serving American has suddenly hit his stride. Including his second-round thrashing of Spain’s Jaume Munar, Opelka has now won six of his last eight matches on the red clay.

As he reached his first Masters semi-final in Rome two weeks ago, Opelka joked that his success was probably a fluke. 

Isner, who will face off with No.5 seed Tsitsipas in the third round, thinks that Opelka should not sell himself short. 

“Reilly is, for as big as he is, an incredible mover,” said Isner. “He's very, very fast. He's got that going for him. He's still very young. So I think very highly of Reilly.” 

John Isner, Roland Garros 2021, second round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Tennis Channel analyst and two-time Roland-Garros champion Jim Courier sees lots of promise in Opelka on the red dirt.

“I hope that Reilly really doesn't believe it was a fluke,” said Courier. “He's impossible to break if he's having a good serving day. That puts so much pressure on his opponents - Reilly should be feeling pretty confident.” 

The 32nd-seeded American credits a revamped forehand for his disruptive play in Paris, where he had never scored a main-draw win prior to this year. 

“Just honestly some really simple, basic things,” Opelka said of his technical improvements. “My body is a lot more quiet, my head is more quiet. Honestly, it's just some really basic things - we get away from them with different conditions, different courts. It kind of got back to owning the basics.” 

Reilly Opelka, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Andre Ferreira/FFT

Isner is not a classic clay-courter by any means, but like Opelka, he possesses the secret sauce that makes for a spicy - and successful - clay-court game. A giant serve. 

“Most times here at Roland-Garros, these are incredible serving conditions for me,” he told the press after his 7-6(6), 6-1, 7-6(5) takedown of Serbia’s Filip Krajinovic on Wednesday. “I don't think people realise how good of a surface clay can be for a guy like myself, especially if the weather is cooperating.”

Former NCAA champion Giron, listed at 5’11” on the ATP’s website, can’t rain down aces like Isner and Opelka, but he has nevertheless found himself in the third round of a Slam for the first time thanks to a willingness to grind out points - and victories - on the clay. 

The 27-year-old savours every chance to compete at the Slams, after battling through two hip surgeries in 2015 and 2016 and rebuilding his ranking step by step over the last several years. 

Marcos Giron, Roland Garros 2021© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

"Everyone has their own road and I think for me, having all the struggles that I've had have really helped me now,” said Giron, who will face No.22 seed Cristian Garin on Friday. “I don't take these matches for granted, I don't take these moments for granted, I think all of those experiences that I have, the tough matches that I've lost, the injuries, all of those are kind of coming into play now, and I've learned from them." 

Johnson has come through two grueling five-setters to reach the third round at Roland-Garros for the fourth time, while Opelka and Giron have never tasted the second week of a Slam before. Isner, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist, has been to the round of 16 twice in Paris. 

Whatever their past experience, these American men are currently all in the same state of mind.

"We've got a good group of hungry players," Giron said. "We have a lot of players in the top-100 and I think we're all hungry to prove what we can do."