The spirit of Pete Sampras pervaded today’s National Bank Open semifinal between third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas and Reilly Opelka. Two days ago, Sampras marked his 50th birthday and Tsitsipas turned 23–festive times for a pair of one-handed attackers of Greek descent. “He was always there,” Tsitsipas said about Sampras on their shared day of celebration. “We always saw him as a big legend of our sport.”

Then there was Opelka. Win today in Toronto and he’d vault past John Isner as the highest-ranked American; still far from Sampras’ dazzling heights as America’s best-ever male tennis player, but at least a solid step forward.

Mission accomplished. Over the course of two hours and 32 minutes, Opelka beat Tsitsipas 6-7 (2), 7-6 (4), 6-4. Most notable was that he did it by stealing pages straight from the Sampras book, an assassin’s guide you could title, “Gunslinger Tennis: High Noon at the Net.”

Never was this more vivid than at the critical stage of the third set, when Opelka faced the live-or-die moment that accompanies his playing style. Serving at 2-3, 30-40 – Tsitsipas’ only break point of the match – Opelka not only missed his first serve, but also broke a string. The picture of Sampras came to mind; a mild jog, Sampras hunched over as he pulled out one of his black Wilson Pro Staff frames, returned to the baseline, rocked back on his front heel, fired a second serve ace, demoralized his opponent, and, soon enough, broke open the match.

But this was Opelka, currently ranked 32 in the world. For all the firepower Opelka brings, he’d lost in the first round of Wimbledon and was in the semis of a Masters 1000 event for only the second time in his career.

Tennis’ eternal mystery and joy: When a young hopeful earns that breakthrough win. So it was that on this point, Opelka struck a kick serve, charged forward and nailed an untouchable crosscourt forehand volley. “I think that was the right call,” Opelka said of his decision to rush the net, “and I was willing to live with it. If he ran around and hit a forehand return at my feet, I was willing to live with it.”

Opelka went on to hold. Technically, the score at that point was 3-all. But in a deeper sense, the advantage had swung ever-so-slightly to Opelka. Tsitsipas had seen a slight opening. But now the window was shut and who knew if it would ever open again. This was the same quality that made Sampras so oppressive.

Opelka was dominant at net against the Greek.

Opelka was dominant at net against the Greek.


At 3-all, Tsitsipas served at 30-15. Here again, Opelka seized the moment, stepping in early to drive a backhand down-the-line service return for a winner. Tsitsipas, clearly troubled by that kind of pressure and the lost opportunity from the prior game, double-faulted at 30-all, shanked a backhand at 30-40 and then hit a ball out of the stadium, a violation that incurred a penalty point in the next game.

“So I think to a certain extent it helped that there were some games where I missed a lot of returns, didn't put much in play,” said Opelka. That pattern of disruption was also reminiscent of Sampras. “The game I broke, I just came up with some returns, came up with an extra ball here or there. It had been maybe 20, 30 minutes since we had a long rally, and that's why I got some unforced errors.”

Opelka from this point forward was rock-solid on his serve. On the critical first point of the 5-4 game, he punched a forehand volley down-the-line that clipped the net and landed just short enough to be effective. At 15-love, Opelka dug out a tough service return and carved a backhand volley in a manner evocative of another old-school netrusher, Stefan Edberg. On match point, back to the basics: a service winner down the T.

“I think it was just an accumulation of pressure put on him,” said Opelka. “I think he felt that, you know, I was serving well, was winning points in a lot of different ways on my serve. Even when he hit some good returns, I would crush some forehands or I came up with some good volleys. I think I was winning so many points with so many different ways and different shots that the pressure just kind of stayed on him.”

As also happened frequently in Sampras’ matches, the first two sets flew by in a rush of big serves and slashed groundstrokes. During the tiebreakers, one error from each proved the difference. In the first tiebreaker, Opelka served at 1-1 and butchered a sitter of a forehand volley. From there, Tsitsipas rolled. In tiebreaker number two, Tsitsipas got back on serve at 4-5, only to double-fault, Opelka winning the set one point later.

Gunslinger tennis most of all demands supreme mental alertness. As much as points seem to rapidly go one after another, pressure accumulates and there will come those telling moments when the match hangs on the edge of a knife. It was the ability to manage those challenges without blinking that took Sampras to the top. Opelka, too, has seen how he must continue to hone far more than his strokes. As he said today, “You don't have time, I have learned, to waste energy on other things, and your mind has to be engaged on one thing only. As soon as you open the door to, you know, let it slip, you right away are distracted from some things that can change the match, like a subtle adjustment of a tactic or just having awareness of what they are doing.”

Tsitsipas too recognized the nuances of a match that was deceptively subtle. “It was played on the details,” he said, “and he prevailed.”