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Wimbledon will always be the tournament we think of when John Isner’s name is mentioned, for two very good reasons. He won a 183-game match there, and he reached the semifinals there (that semifinal clocked in at just 99 total games). But outside of those two incredible and indeterminable highlights, Isner’s record at Wimbledon is lackluster. Take away his 2018 semifinal run, and he’s only 11-10 at the All England Club, with no fourth-round appearances.

Maybe Isner, who might own the most devastating shot in tennis history—his serve, of course—can buck the trend this year; he opens tomorrow against Yoshihito Nishioka. But his history at Wimbledon was on my mind Monday, when another star server, Reilly Opelka, took the court against Dominik Koepfer. Just one spot below his career-high ranking, the 23-year-old, 32nd-ranked Opelka had played well enough to earn a seed in SW19, and found himself in a relatively soft quarter of the draw—one that also no longer featured its top seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas. Although Opelka lost his only grass-court singles match leading up to Wimbledon, his play on clay (a semifinal in Rome, and a third-round showing at Roland Garros) and consistent upward trend was noteworthy. Could Opelka—a junior Wimbledon champion six years ago—turn into a giant-sized men’s sleeper?

As we were reminded on Monday, while a player can choose how he or she plays, and refine that game as much as possible, they can’t choose two things at the game’s upper-most level: the surface on which they compete, and the person across the net.

Reilly Opelka has a giant serve, but that hasn't translated to much success on grass in the professional ranks.

Reilly Opelka has a giant serve, but that hasn't translated to much success on grass in the professional ranks.

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In Opelka vs. Koepfer, let’s start with the surface, one that for generations was tonic to big servers. While the low-bouncing turf still aids a strong first delivery, we’re in an entirely different era than Goran Ivanisevic, Pete Sampras and Boris Becker—rallies will decide matches, not just serves. This isn’t breaking news, but it’s at least an explanation for Isner’s relatively average play at Wimbledon over the course his career, and for Opelka’s struggles on the surface as a pro. He’s hardly played on grass over the past four years, for one:

  • 2018: Lost second-round qualifying match at Wimbledon
  • 2019: Lost opener in Eastbourne; lost third round at Wimbledon
  • 2020: Didn’t play (not holding this against him, but the pandemic robbed him of more grass-court experience)
  • 2021: Lost opener in Queen’s Club

And the low-bouncing surface cuts both ways—if Opelka’s opponent can return his bomb serves, they will likely come back at him with pace, and not very high off the ground.

After dropping the first set to Koepfer on Monday, Opelka found himself in a familiar place: a tiebreaker. But he was unable to win it, and his frustration grew, while Koepfer’s confidence soared. The German relished hitting his two-handed backhand, keeping Opelka pinned back on the baseline and leaving him to resort to bail-out shots: ill-timed slices and low-percentage forehands were too common. Koepfer also used the drop shot—another play that keeps the ball low, and more difficult for the 6’11” Opelka to hit—to great effect.

That brings us to the second unknown, the opponent. Although Opelka knew Koepfer very well: they had played twice before, and Koepfer had won all five sets.

It’s almost like you’re a [soccer] goalie trying to stop a penalty [shot]. It’s impossible. You just have to guess, and if you guess wrong, it’s over. Dominik Koepfer, after his third consecutive straight-sets win over Reilly Opelka

In his 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-2 win, Koepfer lost the ace battle, but he won the war, earning a greater percentage of first-serve points, hitting seven more unreturned serves, and converting all three of his break-point chances. (Opelka went 0 for 3.)

Some players simply have another one’s number, and Koepfer clearly does in this match-up.

“I don’t think it’s comfort,” Koepfer said about reading Opelka’s serve, “It’s very uncomfortable playing him. Second set, I didn’t see—I didn’t have a chance at all; he was serving unbelievable. It’s almost like you’re a [soccer] goalie trying to stop a penalty [shot]. It’s impossible. You just have to guess, and if you guess wrong, it’s over.”

And yet, Koepfer has now played eight sets against Opelka—just two of which have gone into tiebreakers, even more impressively—and won them all. The margin for victory against Opelka's serve is scant, but like Germany’s famed luge teams that compete in races timed to the thousandth of a second, he invariably comes out on top.

“First set I played a good game to break him, and then in the third set I was seeing the return really well, I got my chances, break points, and on the big points I played well. Managed to hold serve.

“Again, I wouldn’t say it’s comfort, but winning three times against him and not losing a set definitely helps.”

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Roger Federer was severely tested by Dominik Koepfer at Roland Garros, and would pull out of the tournament hours after they bumped fists.

Roger Federer was severely tested by Dominik Koepfer at Roland Garros, and would pull out of the tournament hours after they bumped fists.

While Koepfer’s record against Opelka was a potential indicator of today’s result, his play leading up to the match raised other concerns. The 27-year-old lost both of his grass-court tune-up matches on home soil (in Stuttgart, to 142nd-ranked Jurij Rodionov, and in Halle, to Alexander Zverev). This all following a Roland Garros that saw Koepfer nearly defeat Roger Federer—he lost a 7-6 (5), 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4), 7-5 nailbiter—before the Swiss superstar withdrew from the tournament for precautionary reasons.

“Took me a while to recover from [the Roger match], mentally and physically,” Koepfer said. “But I thought I played a great match and took a lot of confidence from it.”

“It wasn’t easy to adjust to the grass. Stuttgart, I probably shouldn’t have played; I was a little hurt, [but] thought I needed some matches, and wanted to play at home, so I kind of forced it. Played a good match against Zverev, had my chances, probably could have won. I feel good on grass, and went in with a good feeling.”

Like Opelka, Koepfer has an American connection, but the former didn’t come to the U.S. until his teenage years, when he played college tennis for Tulane. The school’s moniker is the Green Wave.

Back on a Grand Slam stage after a fan-less third-round thriller against Federer, there were fans for Koepfer to wave at after his win, and grass—as green as can be, playing on unspoiled court on Day 1—underfoot. Death, taxes, and Koepfer beating Opelka.

WATCH: Koepfer's match against Federer at Roland Garros

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