Reilly Opelka had a hunch the man across the net from him was no ordinary coach. Opelka, eight at the time, had already played for a few years by then.
But with his new coach, a 54-year-old man who had spent his lifetime in the sport, everything was changing. Over the course of five years, Tom Gullikson would overhaul Opelka’s game and teach him all of the fundamentals that would carry him to ATP Tour success 14 years later.
Gullikson, the former ATP Tour champion and U.S. Davis Cup captain, introduced Opelka to the work ethics of the all-time greats, including Roger Federer, and showed him how to practise like a professional. The veteran coach, who had three decades of ATP playing and coaching experience, helped Opelka enjoy the game he loved.
“The coaching was like nothing I had ever seen… I started improving so much, and I was able to actually play, and it is just so much more fun when you have that kind of knowledge with something you love,” Opelka told ATPTour.com. “He had set the standard for me and really built my game. All the fundamentals came from him, especially my serve.”
Some players compete for years with improper fundamentals – incorrect grips or obvious weaknesses they manage through power or athleticism. As long as they win, no coach seems to mind.
But when players arrive on the ATP Tour, everyone, including their peers, is happy to attack their weaknesses. That, however, has never been a worry for Opelka, who, at only 23, is a two-time ATP Tour titlist and into the Top 40 of the FedEx ATP Rankings. This week, the American reached his first ATP Masters 1000 quarter-final at the Western & Southern Open.
“[Gullikson] can teach a player to have no limitations based on grips or swing shapes or the important things in tennis, and it takes a lot of coordinated effort. It also just takes a lot of patience. I think he did a great job with Reilly Opelka,” said Jay Berger, former USTA head of men’s tennis and current coach of Opelka.
Opelka worked for five years with Gullikson, who spent countless hours on court and received as payment only Lou Malnati’s Chicago deep-dish cheese and sausage pizzas.
George Opelka and Gullikson had been introduced a couple times before, but they’d never found the time to chat. Only months earlier, Opelka had moved his family from Michigan to Florida because of his work.
But standing outside The Grand Club in Palm Coast, Florida, waiting to sign up for golf memberships, the two Florida transplants talked for 45 minutes and hit it off.
Who precisely initiated the player-coach relationship between Reilly and Gullikson a couple months later is up for debate. George Opelka remembers Gullikson eventually asking him to take a look at Reilly’s tennis, to which George replied, “Are you serious? Are you kidding me?”
But Gullikson remembers George asking him for his thoughts and a full assessment of Reilly’s game. Either way, the opportunity arrived at a time when Gullikson had time to give.
He was running the Tim and Tom Gullikson Foundation, a nonprofit organisation that was formed after Tim, his identical twin and the former coach of Pete Sampras, died of brain cancer in 1996 at age 44.
After his death, Tom Gullikson and Tim’s widow, Rosemary, formed the foundation to help brain tumour patients and their families. But the volunteer work wasn’t full-time, and Tom was still occasionally traveling for tennis exhibitions and other work.
By this point, Tom, like his late twin brother, had spent years coaching pros following his singles and doubles career on the ATP Tour. Tom worked with Todd Martin and served as the U.S. Davis Cup captain for six years, coaching former World No. 1s Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Sampras.
“Pistol Pete” actually first approached Tom about coaching him full-time, but Tom had recently signed a contract with the USTA to be a touring pro and suggested that Sampras work with Tim.
With Opelka in north Florida, on a green Har-Tru court tucked inside the middle of the neighbourhood’s athletic centre, Gullikson inspected Reilly’s game, and then proceeded to change everything.
He tweaked Reilly’s forehand grip, from “beyond western” to semi-western, the dominant grip in today’s game, and his volley grip, from eastern to continental.
Reilly’s backhand swing motion resembled that of Andy Roddick‘s – straight down – but Gullikson preferred more a body turn. Most importantly for Opelka, who averaged more than 21 aces a match last season, Gullikson improved his service motion, from both palms up early to one where his racquet head stays closed until later on.
“When you’re young, it’s all about the relentless pursuit of really great fundamentals, and Reilly needs a lot of work in that area,” Gullikson remembers telling George at the time.
Eventually, Gullikson and Reilly were practising two to three nights a week, spending the first hour on fundamentals: “court positioning, tactics, all the things that make you a player rather than just a striker of the ball,” Gullikson said.
In the second hour, they worked on playing tennis: “point construction, tactics and how to read the game”.
Gullikson would pick up Reilly from school and they’d practise. Other times, they’d watch golf together, just the two of them.
Every August, Gullikson would run the foundation’s booth at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. When Opelka was 10, Gullikson and Opelka’s family travelled to the Masters 1000 event, where Reilly was exposed to the pros.
He sat at breakfast one morning and listened to Jose Higueras, then coach of Federer, discuss how he and the Swiss were working on incorporating more drop shots into his game. Opelka would then watch Federer play and see the plan in action. “Pretty cool for me to hear what they were working on,” Opelka said.
Gullikson also was big on a Spaniard named Rafael Nadal and encouraged Opelka to study how well Nadal held his forehand. “You just don’t know where he’s going, you’re always on your heels,” Gullikson would say.
The coach especially wanted Opelka to spend time watching practice, seeing first-hand how Federer, Nadal, Roddick and David Ferrer worked.
Opelka was studying the best off the court, and on the court, he was practising like a professional, benefitting from Gullikson’s 30 years of experience as an ATP player and coach. “I was doing the same practices at 10 that I am now,” Opelka said.
Opelka was playing in only Florida tournaments at the time, so he wasn’t well-known in junior tennis circles across the U.S.
But when, five years after he met Gullikson, Reilly won the first national tennis event he played, the USTA Boys’ 12 National Spring Championships in Delray Beach, everyone wanted to know more about this Opelka kid.
“The thing that struck me the most was that he was pretty put together from a strokes standpoint,” Berger said.
One year after the national championship, though, Opelka and Gullikson’s regular practices ended. His family foundation closed, and Gullikson rejoined the USTA as a full-time coach in Carson, California.
Before he left, though, he made a few calls and arranged Opelka’s next coach, former World No. 3 Brian Gottfried.
“If you’ve got a coach who has played at the top levels of the game, like Gully, he’s going to be able to see where you are and what you need to get there,” Gottfried told ATPTour.com.
Gullikson has remained a guiding hand throughout Opelka’s career. He introduced Opelka to Berger and renowned sports psychologist Jim Loehr, and Opelka works with both of them now.
“That connection was never lost,” George Opelka said.
The first handful of times Gullikson hit with Reilly, George tried to pay him, but Gullikson refused. “George, you’re embarrassing yourself,” he’d tell him.
George eventually switched tactics, sending him four pizzas a couple times a year, around the American Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Gullikson remains away from the ATP Tour now. He teaches tennis part-time to top-level boys and girls in Chicago.
But his influence on the ATP Tour remains easy to see. Just take one look at an Opelka match, and watch closely how he lifts his racquet, snaps his wrist and delivers one of the best serves in the sport in the exact same way Gullikson taught him 15 years ago.