Lloyd Harris will be hoping his phenomenal form will continue when he plays his US Open quarter-final against Alex Zverev on Wednesday.
SOUTH African Lloyd Harris, whose phenomenal rise up the world rankings has been one of the remarkable sports stories of 2021, once again captured the imagination of tennis fans on Monday, when he threw Reilly Opelka off his powerful game to reach the US Open quarter-finals.
The 22-seeded Opelka, the highest-ranked American in the 128-man draw, is ranked 24 and armed with arguably the biggest serve in world tennis. He was expected to shade unseeded Harris, who arrived at the US Open with a world ranking of 46.
Harris, however, undaunted by Opelka’s credentials, played the game of his life to eke out an upset 6-7(6) 6-4 6-1 6-3 win to reach his maiden major quarter-final. The 24-year-old Harris was in uncharted territory since it was the first time that he had reached the fourth round at a Slam.
On Monday, when play started at the Louis Armstrong Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, in New York, Harris served notice in the opening game that he was up to the challenge.
Opelka battled to retain serve and only after Harris spurned six breakpoints, he finally managed a 1-0 lead. It must have been a crushing blow mentally for Opelka, who was unable to impose himself on the game despite his world-class serve.
There was an exchange of service breaks in the ninth and 10th games before a tiebreak ensued. Three minibreaks for Opelka saw him run out a 7-6(6) winner in just under an hour. As it turned out, it was the last time Opelka would win a set in the match.
In the second set, it was pretty much one-way traffic when Harris was on serve. Opelka, who was shaded 15-12 in the first-set ace count, stuttered along until he dropped serve in the 10th game, and Harris drew level 1-1 after 42 minutes. Harris again won the ace count 11-5.
When the third set started, Harris grabbed the match by the scruff of the neck and raced through for an emphatic 6-1 win in only 25 minutes. It was a terrific display against the lanky Opelka (he is 2.11m tall), who just a month ago beat Harris in a third-round clash at the Canada Masters.
On top of that, Opelka was in a rich vein of form in recent months and recorded wins over highly-rated players like Nick Kyrgios, Grigor Dimitrov, Roberto Bautista Agut and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
However, Harris’ ascendency in the third set seemed to have a crushing effect on Opelka.
At times when facing Harris’ serve, Opelka hardly moved as the thunderbolts flew past him. He was not enjoying a taste of his own medicine, and it marked the beginning of the end for the American.
The statistics for the third set reflect Harris’ supremacy. He won three of four service games 40-0 (the only other went 40-15). He broke serve twice, and the pressure on Opelka was incredible as Harris managed a steady flow of return of serves.
It was so one-sided and Harris did not draw too heavily on his lethal serve. The ace count was fairly low at 6-4 in his favour.
By the time the fourth set started, the Louis Armstrong Stadium spectators were treated to a masterclass in the fourth set, which was completed in 31 minutes. Opelka dropped serve in the first and ninth games and Harris remarkably retained his composure and excitement, to book his ticket for a quarter-final appearance on Wednesday.
Afterwards, Harris appeared emotional as his amazing victory dawned on him when appearing for a courtside interview.
“I am obviously super happy to get through this first match – a first fourth round for me. It was a really tough match,” Harris said.
“Reilly is always going to come with a lot of big serves, that is for sure. I think I handled it well after going down that first set. I held my composure. I served really well throughout the match.
“All in all, I am just very, very pleased and very relieved after that performance.”
Harris felt his consistency was the key to his performance against Opelka.
“It has just been better managing match after match, bringing the same quality, the same level of tennis,” he said.
“I always knew I had the ability; I had the level. I never had a problem beating some of the top guys. But it was consistently playing at that level, which was a little bit more challenging for me.
“I think that’s something (consistency) I’ve done a lot better throughout this season. It’s kind of showing right now. It’s reflecting that I’m getting a lot bigger wins consistently. I’m just happy with the progress I’ve made in that regard.”
Harris said he and his supporting team used the quarantine period to good effect, and it boosted his conditioning for the tournament as he didn’t play a warm-up event.
“It has not been an easy time with the quarantine lockdown,” said Harris. “Together with the physio and fitness trainer, we talked about it, and I am in the best physical shape I’ve ever been. It is something I’ve lacked the last couple of years, struggling with a few injuries, not always having the time to put in that physical work.
“I came into this event probably better prepared than ever because of that time I had in the lockdown.”
Harris’ quarter-final opponent will be fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev, the world No.4, who is on a 15-match winning streak. He has noted Harris’ meteoric rise on the world stage.
“I think he’s somebody who is improving a lot this year,” said Zverev. “I feel Lloyd has been winning two, three matches every single week, doesn’t matter where he’s playing.
“He’s showing the high level here again. He’s playing incredibly, and he’s serving equally incredible.
“In Cincinnati, I was struggling a lot to return his serve in the first set. Yeah, it’s gonna be a tough one, definitely.”
In the head-to-head count, the Russian-born Zverev, a recent gold medal Olympic Games winner after beating world No.1 Novak Djokovic, leads 2-0.