Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks ahead to the latest in tennis. Today, Charles Blouin-Gascon previews day 6 of the 2021 US Open.
Welcome to the summer of Reilly Opelka, men’s tennis’s foremost serve bot.
The 24-year-old American has been playing inspired tennis, using his height and well-developed game to the greatest summer of his life. After making the National Bank Open final in Toronto, where he lost against Daniil Medvedev, Opelka has now made the third round of his home Grand Slam in Flushing Meadows. He’ll play Nikoloz Basilashvili, an opponent well within his grasp.
Things are rosey and looking up for the six-foot-11 giant, which has plenty in the tennis community declaring that 2021 is the summer of the serve bot. Here’s where you scream out loud: “The summer of the what, now?”
Well, let’s listen to the man himself break things down for you.
What is a serve bot?
Because of his recent play, and because his nationality has raised his cultural relevance, Opelka has become something of a household name. And because he is tied for the tallest player ever in men’s history, folks have started to use what he excels at against him.
You see, Opelka is a serve bot, some folks say, because his strength (i.e. his serve) is so overpowering and overwhelming. He is a serve bot, they say, because serving 225-kph bombs is what he does. Because, they say, it’s all he does.
Indeed, that’s what it’s come down to: plenty of folks have used Opelka’s strengths against him. We are here to tell you, dear reader, that this is BS.
There’s a problem with that
The problem, here, is that serving plays an integral and critical part of every tennis point in every match, set, and game. You literally cannot win if you don’t have a good serve, or even any kind of serve at all. Even little, ol’ Diego Schwartzman, whose serve plays maybe the least integral part in whether he wins or not of anyone on tour, has to serve—and ideally serve well at that!
Opelka, some folks would have you believe, would never have the success he’s had if he wasn’t a giant and didn’t have the serve he has. On the one hand, this is patently untrue. But even if we entertain the argument just a bit, we see that there are flaws. Because if Opelka wasn’t as tall as he was, and if he didn’t have the formidable serve that he has, then he would have developed and anchored his game around other things. What he would have lost in height, he would have likely gained in agility and overall movement.
It’s frustrating, because this keeps happening to serve-first players. They’re deemed insufficient. Their successes are said to be because of one thing and one thing only. They’re told they’re boring. We would never say this about Rafael Nadal’s pedestrian net game. Or Novak Djokovic’s sucky overheads. Or Roger Federer’s continual choke jobs. So why do we say this about serve bots?
Variety in men’s tennis is a good thing. Embrace the serve bots in your life. Opelka has.
Day 6 preview
We’re closing things today with our usual glance at the day’s schedule. Below, you will find three matches that we’ve chosen to highlight. Reminder that these are merely personal choices and that they in no way indicate a guarantee that they’ll be the only good matches on that day—or that they’ll even be good at all. As always, you can see the full day 6 schedule here.
Arthur Ashe Stadium: Maria Sakkari  vs Petra Kvitova  (First match of the day)
Quite the ho-hum start to day 6. One day, Petra Kvitova’s career will come to a close, and we fear this moment every day of our tennis lives. It would be great to see the Czech enjoy a final moment under the bright lights, and we wouldn’t mind if it happened here in Flushing Meadows. The women’s draw is still absolutely loaded, and Kvitova’s Grand Slam performances this season have been rather pedestrian; what better time to change this than now?
Arthur Ashe Stadium: Kei Nishikori vs Novak Djokovic  (Second match of the day)
Novak Djokovic has won no fewer than 17 straight matches against opponent Kei Nishikori (e.g. including once in a walkover, and another when the Japanese retired). Over the same period, he’s lost a minuscule five sets. This match shouldn’t be a problem for the Serb, is what we’re getting at. But you should watch the match regardless, because Djokovic is looking to make history. Soak it all in.
Louis Armstrong Stadium: Gael Monfils  vs Jannik Sinner  (Third match of the day)
Here we are, the best match of the day. Gael Monfils and Jannik Sinner are at opposite poles of their respective playing careers, but they show up around the same place on the FedEx ATP Rankings. Funny how life works.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG