Opelka provides a lift on 'weird year' for US men's tennis

Reilly Opelka provided a boost from US men's tennis on Friday, booking his first Masters semi-final berth in Rome where he meets clay-court king Rafael Nadal in the Italian Open.

The success of the 23-year-old from Michigan comes on a week when no American men have featured in the Top 30 since the ATP rankings' introduction in 1973.

Taylor Fritz, ranked 31, is the top US player in the world, followed by John Isner, 34th, and Opelka, 47th.

Three US men took part in the main draw in Rome with Fritz exiting in the second round to Novak Djokovic, and 55th-ranked qualifier Tommy Paul falling in the first round.

But Opelka has powered through without dropping a set or service game and hitting 77 aces, a run which will see him reach the Top 30 next week.

"The only reason there is not (an American in the Top 30) is because Isner has taken some time off, given the circumstances with his family and not being able to travel with all of his family," said Opelka.

"He has a wife and two little kids. It's hard.

"If he's travelling, we have a guaranteed not only top 30, guaranteed top 20.

"But, I mean, it's a weird year."

The United States is the country who have had the most world number one players -- Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick.

But the last US man to win a Grand Slam was Roddick at the US Open in 2003, and none has reached the finals in Rome since Agassi's victory in 2002.

Opelka, who has won two ATP titles -- both on hard court, dismissed all the "negative" talk about rankings.

"It is what it is. We will be there. I'm not worried," he said.

"But me, Tommy, Frances (Tiafoe), Fritz, we are all super tight, we all work hard.

"We respect the ones that support us unconditionally, you know. That's how we support each other."

- 'Rafa's brutal' -

On Friday, Opelka beat Argentine qualifier Federico Delbonis 7-5, 7-6 (7/2) in 1hr 41min for his fourth victory of the week without dropping a set.

"I'm surprised, clay's not really my thing, not an American thing, it's probably just a fluke but I'll run with it," said Opelka, who arrived in Rome on a six-match losing streak.

Not only is Opelka yet to drop a set in Rome, he is yet to lose his serve, hitting 18 aces against Delbonis for a total of 77 in four matches.

The 6ft 11 inch (2.11m) big hitter had returned to form having played just one tournament on clay in Madrid after catching Covid-19 after Miami.

He next meets Nadal, the number two seed, who dispatched Madrid Masters winner Alexander Zverev, the 2017 Rome champion, 6-3, 6-4 in two hours.

"Rafa's brutal," said the American.

"It will be a good test, you know, against the greatest player of all time."

And after two consecutive first round exits in the French Open, Opelka said his Roman run "definitely gives me confidence going to Roland Garros".

"Played 2019 a few matches, only one season. I was injured for half of it, so hard to assess my record on clay," he continued.

"Slams are a different, a whole different breed, something I've still got to improve on and I have a lot to learn from."