Reilly Opelka does not like to blend in with the crowd. At 6’11”, he couldn’t even if he tried.
At 22, Opelka already has two ATP titles to his name, and his list of quality wins is growing quickly. He’s defeated Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic, David Goffin, Roberto Bautista Agut, Diego Schwartzman and Fabio Fognini. His serve is practically unreturnable and he moves well for his size. Provided he stays healthy, Opelka is poised to become a mainstay inside the Top 20. It’s almost impossible not to compare him to fellow thunder-clapper John Isner. And speaking of quality wins, after dropping his first meeting to Isner at the 2016 Atlanta Open, Opelka has beaten his countryman three consecutive times, with every set ending in, you guessed it, a tiebreak.
On the court, Opelka is covered in Fila. But off the court, he’d much rather dress himself. Opelka has always had “the drip,” or in layman's terms, “enviable style"—and not whatever else you were thinking. When you see it, you’ll know, for it's the current generation's way of having swagger.
“One thousand percent, I don’t want to blend in,” Opelka told TENNIS.com.
It goes beyond that, though. It’s actually a fear of his.
“I’m not big on brand names, I’m not into Supreme or the Gucci print shorts and shirts. If I see something from one of those brands I like, that’s where the Mulch guys will go in and custom make it for me. That way I have a contribution toward my clothing. I’m not trying to pay $1,000 for a sticker that everyone else has.”
The “Mulch guys” are several employees of Opelka's favorite clothier, Mulch California, a small Los Angeles-based fashion brand that hand makes all their products locally, in San Clemente. Through the past several years, Opelka has developed a close relationship with the company. He’s already designed and created several pieces of his own clothes, like this orange hoodie, that you won’t find in stores.
The relationship has helped Opelka foster a few high-profile friendships with fellow athletes that share his sentiment towards style, and artistic expression in general. Most notably, Golden State Warrior Klay Thompson, and three-time X Games gold medalist Ryan Sheckler, who grew up in San Clemente and went to kindergarten with the founders of Mulch.
In early March, instead of raining down aces in the California desert, Opelka spent his pre-quarantine days staying at the pro skater’s house. Sheckler has become something of an older brother figure to Opelka, and “woke him up early everyday to go to the gym, before hanging out at the skate park.”
If you’re wondering what a towering tennis player is doing near a skate park, don’t worry. “He won’t even let me go near a skateboard,” Opelka says.
More than anything, Opelka's relationship with Sheckler has shown him how much more there is to life outside of competition, like giving back, and helping one's community.
“[Taylor] Fritz and I spent some time at a Sheckler Foundation event in Miami and it was such a fulfilling experience. It’s so cool to see his impact,” Opelka says. “He’s one of the most influential skaters in the world and he has time for everybody.
“A lot of these tennis guys will hardly say hi to other players, let alone their fans. For a lot of players it’s just courts, hotel, gym, courts and repeat. They’ll probably thrive during the quarantine.”
“These guys have no issues helping each other out. I understand we are competing for thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, but there’s no reason for some players to not even acknowledge your existence,” he says. “Skating’s not as competitive as tennis, but the way they go about things is so much more laid back. They are two completely different worlds ,and I think that’s why I like being in that environment.”
From a player who fires fast balls, that's certainly a change-up from the prevailing “eat what you kill” mentality on tour.
Opelka views fashion as an art form, a combination of personal expression and utility. But he’s not stopping at clothes and shoes. His Boca Raton, Fla. house (which he shares with best bud Paul) is quickly becoming an art gallery.
An old soul for 22, Opelka has moved on from organic furniture art. “Shi* Tommy, we have a bad stain on the couch,” he noticed during the interview.
Some of his favorite artists include Frederick Kunath, Adam Rabinowitz and Thrush Holmes. Some of the Holmes neoinfused pieces are more for ambiance and vibe setting, while the Kunath pieces simply pull his heart-strings.
“All their pieces are really different from one another, which I like. There’s a lot of variety and they all pop in their own ways. I could stare at the Kunath pieces all day. His pieces tell more of a story to me than any other artist which is why he’s my favorite. The oils on his really pop. It’s mesmerizing.”
In addition to canvas pieces, Opelka is about to try his hand in some performance art. He’s working with Red Bull, one of his sponsors, to build a custom ping-pong table in his garage, complete with murals and foldable stadium seats.
“I’m so stoked on the ping-pong arena, it’s going to be insane.” he said.
For Opelka, it all boils down to having interests outside of your sport, and being true to yourself. In the meantime, you’ll be able to find Opelka in his favorite room of the house battling Paul in backgammon. It’s no coincidence that his blue and black board perfectly compliments the hues in his living room.
When it comes to design and art for Opelka, there are no accidents.