In defense of the ace: Isner-Opelka match-ups make for riveting tennis

In defense of the ace: Isner-Opelka match-ups make for riveting tennis

The stakes—and aces—are high in these encounters, where opportunities are rare.

A massive serve down the middle, followed by a return stabbed deep to the back of the court.

A forehand reply that fell short down the center of the court, setting up an approach shot ripped down the line.

A double-fisted backhand ripped crosscourt that forced a lunging volley—which didn’t get the depth it needed, setting up one last forehand passing shot.

All of that took place in the second round of the Atlanta Open, on Reilly Opelka's third match point against top seed John Isner. After two-and-a half hours and three tiebreak sets, Opelka had his third victory against his fellow American this year in as many matches.

While extended rallies might be few and far between, there’s no discounting the idea that this match-up presents its own unique set of challenges—while managing to be riveting at the same time.

Opelka and Isner have each won 59 of their 60 service games in their last three meetings. (Getty Images)

Both Isner and Opelka, two of the tallest players to ever compete on the ATP Tour, have built their careers on their ability to overpower their opponents—particularly with their serves. The two, though, are more capable from the baseline than are given credit for, solid off the ground on both wings. And when they work their way to the net, their coverage can be intimidating for their opponents, who often try to hit passing shots into tight spaces.

When they’re facing off, the two are near-mirror images of each other, with the margins exceptionally slim. In the 10 sets they've played this year, they’ve racked up more than 230 combined aces—with only one break of serve apiece. All 10 sets have ended in tiebreakers.

Those rare breaks occurred in their first meeting of the year, in the first round of the Australian Open. In what was only the second Grand Slam main-draw match for Opelka, the 21-year-old came through in four tight sets to advance.

They then squared off in the semifinals at the New York Open a few weeks later, where again Opelka triumphed in a match that went the distance—this time fighting off six match points. Opelka would go on to win his first career title.

“It could be an actual coin flip,” Isner said before their last encounter. (Getty Images)

In Atlanta, Isner entered the match with momentum on his side and familiarity with the tournament in his favor. Fresh off the title in Newport, RI, last week, Isner headed South with five titles at the kickoff event for the US Open Series. The 34-year-old fought off two match points, but couldn’t escape the last one, and Opelka was through to the final eight.

Throughout their matches, Opelka and Isner have played through multiple high-pressure situations. More than anything, the encounters become a form of mental warfare, with break points coming few and far between. And while the service games might look easy, there’s always thoughts creeping in the back of their heads that a loose point or two can make all the difference.

With triple-digit serves routinely blasting past each other, the two combine for a brand of tennis that can be unpleasing to some. But is two players exchanging forehands and backhands in 30, 40-stroke rallies, more captivating? What Isner and Opelka might lack in that department, they make up for in the ability to compete—and thrive—under circumstances where the outcome might be determined by a single well-struck return at just the right moment.