UNIONDALE, N.Y.—When John Isner and Reilly Opelka played in the first round of the Australian Open last month, they set the record for the tallest match in Grand Slam history—Isner being 6'10" and Opelka being 6'11". Opelka won that match by taking three of the four sets, all in tiebreaks.
In the semifinals of the New York Open on Saturday, the pair set another record, this time for the most combined aces in a best-of-three-set match: 81—Isner with 38 and Opelka with 43. Opelka won the battle of tiebreaks in that match, too, 6-7 (8), 7-6 (14), 7-6 (4), to make his first career ATP final.
Crucially, in the second-set tiebreak, Opelka saved six match points, including one on Isner's first serve. The 33-year-old won 84 percent of his first-serve points, but in this instance, Opelka, in Isner's words, "guessed right" before landing a clutch backhand down the line.
On four of the five subsequent match points, Opelka relied on his first serve, the shot he credits with taking his game to the next level over the past year.
"My serve has improved a ton," he said, citing how his percentage of first-serve points won was gone up from 75 and 85 since 2017. "That's what allowed me to play in those breakers. That's what allowed me to save six match points."
On Saturday in particular, Opelka landed 75 percent of his first serves in, winning a ridiculous 91 percent of his first-serve points. The 21-year-old's 43 aces nearly broke the best-of-three record for the most by a single player—Ivo Karlovic had 45 in Halle in 2015.
The combined-ace record that the Americans surpassed was actually set only recently, by Nick Kyrgios and Ryan Harrison, in Brisbane this New Year's Day. The ATP started counting aces in 1991.
In the third-set tiebreak, Opelka took advantage of an opportunity stemming from Isner's second serve, coming to the net and forcing him to miss a forehand pass attempt. And with the way Opelka was serving, the one mini break was all he needed to win the tiebreak, 7-4, and reach his maiden final.
He'll face another first-timer on Sunday, in 23-year-old Brayden Schnur, who came through qualifying and then recorded his first three ATP wins, over Steve Johnson, Paolo Lorenzi and Sam Querrey.