Tag Archives: Reilly Opelka

“Deadline Artists” doc on HBO highlights the writing brilliance of Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin. A pretty cool dunk at NBA All-Star Weekend over Shaq. And my man Reilly Opelka has a huge tennis breakthrough

There are certain names of newspaper journalists who convey universal respect. Just about all of us have fans and enemies of our work, people who like our style and others who think it’s nothing more useful than to line the birdcage with.

But for a rare few, their writing and reporting are so damn good, everyone kind of stands back in awe.

That’s the case for two New York City legends from days gone by. Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill were wordsmiths of the highest order, though very different in their styles and approaches, and they’re the subject of a fabulous new HBO documentary I saw recently called “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists.”

Jimmy Breslin was a New York City legend, a Queens kid who was pushy, arrogant but outstanding as a reporter in any situation. He was by all account a pain in the ass to work with, but he took on so many powerful institutions like City Hall and the NYPD by championing the underdog, the little guy, the minorities whose rights often get trampled on. He became a major celebrity after corresponding with the Son of Sam serial killer through a series of letters in 1977, and continued to make headlines throughout the rest of his life, which ended in 2017.

Breslin’s most famous story, though, came after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. While hundreds of reporters covered the funeral in the traditional way, Breslin brilliantly chose another path: He found the man who’s job it was to dig the President’s grave, and interviewed him.

Here’s the lede:

Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by eleven o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did.

He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Brilliant.

The only journalist in New York who could rival Breslin in the 1960s-1990s was Pete Hamill, who had a more literary style than the pugnacious Breslin but was equally as talented.

Hamill also was a legendary drunk, and dated Shirley MacLaine and Jackie Kennedy Onassis while enjoying his celebrity. But man, could he write. Personally I remember reading Hamill in college and being totally inspired by his beautiful prose, and how direct he was.

Here’s a snippet of Hamill’s column from the early 1990s, when real estate mogul Donald Trump, in a full-page advertisement, demanded the Central Park Five (accused of raping a white woman in Central Park) be sent to the death penalty for their “Crime.”

“Snarling and heartless and fraudulently tough, insisting on the virtue of stupidity, it was the epitome of blind negation,” Hamill wrote of the ad.

“Hate was just another luxury. And Donald Trump stood naked revealed as the spokesman for that tiny minority of Americans who live well-defended lives. Forget poverty and its causes. Forget the degradation of millions. Fry them into passivity.”

Back when newspaper voices were the loudest and most important in town, Breslin and Hamill were giants, and this brisk documentary covers their lives, and their impact, really well.

My only quibble is that “Deadline Artists” focuses too much on Breslin and not enough on Hamill; I’d say it was like 70-30 in favor of Breslin, when Hamill’s influence was just as strong.

But it was a great, great documentary; here’s a little bit of the trailer to get you interested.

**Next up today, the NBA just had it’s All-Star Weekend, and it’s usually a pretty boring affair. We’ve seen all the dunks, all the 3-point shooting greatness, and the amazing lack of defense in the actual All-Star Game.

But once every couple of years there’s a pretty special moment, and I really liked this dunk by Hamidou Diallo of Oklahoma City in the dunk contest.

He leaped over Shaq on his way to the rim, then put his elbow inside the hoop after the slam.

Pretty cool.

**Finally today, there was a pro tennis result Sunday that probably didn’t mean much to 95 percent of sports fans, but it was very cool and special to see for me.

I’ve written in this space before about Reilly Opelka, the 7-foot pro tennis player who I’ve known for a decade since I wrote my first story about him when he was a 12-year-old in Palm Coast, Fla., and I was a sportswriter in Daytona Beach. I’ve gotten to know Reilly and his fabulous parents over the years, and they’re all good people.

Anyway, this past week I was headed out to the New York Open, a small ATP Tour event that Reilly was playing in at Nassau Coliseum, about 30 minutes from my house, to do a story on him for FlaglerLive.com.

I never get to interview Reilly in person much anymore, so I was looking forward to a little “catching up with” kind of feature on how well he’d been doing lately.

Much to my surprise, the kid caught fire this week and won the whole tournament, finishing with a thrilling 3-set win Sunday night. It was his first ATP Tour-level title, it vaulted him into the No. 56 world ranking (pretty damn good, I’d say) and the best part was his Mom, who rarely gets to see him play in person, was there all week to watch him, then celebrate afterwards.

So many times as a journalist you are taught not to root for the individual, but to root for the story. Well, sometimes you can do both. Here’s my story I wrote on Reilly for FlaglerLive.com today.

It was a very cool moment to see, a kid accomplishing something huge and knowing you saw him when. (As I always tell people, sure, he’s 7-foot tall now, but when I met him I was taller.)
Keep an eye on him, he’s going to keep doing big things.

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A 16-year-old and a 44-year-old played tennis against each other at the Open Tuesday, and I got to watch. Daniel LaRusso the true villain of “The Karate Kid?” And a reporter accidentally makes a 4-year-old cry

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It’s that most wonderful time of year for me, late August, which means the U.S. Open is here, and the next three weeks will be nothing but bliss (Yeah there will be more tennis than usual in this space the next few weeks.)

I’m going as a fan and as a journalist this week to the qualifying tournament, the best bargain in sports (free). My guy Reilly Opelka, the 6-foot-10, 17-year-old phenom I’ve written about here before, is trying to qualify for the men’s draw, and in two weeks will be a favorite to win the boys junior event as well.

I cannot express in words how much I love the Open, for reasons just like this one: Tuesday I saw a 16-year-old play 2.5 hours of scintillating tennis against a 44-year-old.

Seriously. Cici Bellis (above) just turned 16, and Kimiko Date-Krumm is about to be 45. There are TWENTY-EIGHT years between them (or as a wag on Twitter pointed out, a whole Maria Sharapova between them).

I had fun thinking of the huge generational gap between them during the match: Date-Krumm was three years into her first career retirement when Bellis was born. Nixon was President when Date-Krumm was born; Bill Clinton when Cici hatched.

And on and on (Believe me, I bored the people sitting next to me with more trivia, you’re the lucky ones.) Anyway, it was the kind of match you only see in tennis, with an age gap like that (and I’m certain that’s a record for biggest gap between opponents).

Date-Krumm started out fast, winning the first set before, oh, 200 fans. Bellis, who made a big splash by winning a round at last year’s Open, dominated the second set. The third set was tight, there was a truly horrible call by the chair umpire at a crucial point at 4-all, and Bellis won.

It was great. And wonderful to see a player at the start of her career face a player at the end, and for a couple of hours, they were pretty much equal.

God I love tennis. God I love the U.S. Open.

**Next up today, this is bloody brillant and hilarious. A man named J. Matthew Turner has given us a fantastic “alternate reality” version of “The Karate Kid,” arguing in a compelling (and superbly funny) way that Johnny and the Cobra Kai aren’t the real villains of the movie, that it’s actually punk, sociopath Daniel who deserves our boos.

If you love this movie as much as I do, you’ll be side-splittingly laughing at least 3-4 times (especially the Halloween party scene analysis).

**Finally today, you know I love reporters, so I feel badly when they accidentally screw up. Then I laugh about it like everyone else.

This poor woman from KTLA in Los Angeles was interviewing Andrew, a 4-year-old, on his first day of pre-K classes. Andrew was doing great until the reporter, Courtney Friel, asked about missing his mom.

And then, the waterworks started.

Nice job, lady. Why don’t you tell Andrew the truth about Santa and the Easter Bunny while you’re at it.

No worries, Andrew’s Mom, a real hero, gave him a hug off-camera a few seconds later.

Saluting 3 worthy Wimbledon champions: Djokovic, Serena, and Opelka. And R.I.P. Robin Colcord and Lord John Marbury

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It’s the Monday after Wimbledon, which always makes me a little sad, because it means my favorite tennis tournament in the world has ended for another year.

But I’m not sad today. I’m actually thrilled, because these last two weeks have given us tennis nuts so much magnificence.  Some of it we expected, some of it we most certainly did not (I’ll get to that in a minute).

Today on the blog, a few words about three extremely worthy champions.

First, Novak Djokovic. I was, as usual, pulling with all my heart for Roger Federer to win another Grand Slam title on Sunday, and I really thought he could do it. He played one of the best matches of his life in Friday’s semifinals, and I thought if he could come close to duplicating that, he’d have a real shot at Wimbledon title No. 8.

But Novak Djokovic, who doesn’t inspire nearly the passionate fan base as Roger or Rafa Nadal, just keeps winning anyway. He’s too good, too impenetrable at the baseline, and too clutch in the key moments. He and Federer played two of the best sets of tennis you’ll see Sunday, before Djokovic raised his game to another level and won the match in four sets.

He’s a tremendous sportsman, a class act on and off the court, and still very much in his prime. He’s likely to continue leading this incredible era of men’s tennis for years to come. And the Swiss guy ain’t done yet.

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**Serena Williams has never been nor will she ever be a favorite of mine; I’ve made that clear many times in this space over the years. But what she’s doing these last 12 months is beyond ridiculous, it’s just silly. Four straight major titles, including the first three this year. She wins when she’s playing poorly, she wins when she’s playing great. She’s winning some matches in a breeze, others she has to gut out by the skin of her teeth.

She is an incredible athlete, the best female athlete of her generation, and I must admit her attitude and off-court actions have improved quite a bit in recent years. She is an admirable player who has taken her sport to a new level that others cannot yet reach, and isn’t that the greatest legacy someone can leave?

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**Finally, the third champion I want to write about is one I’m much more personally connected to than Novak and Serena. I’ve written about Reilly Opelka since he was 12 years old, when while working at the Daytona Beach News-Journal I went out to his house in Palm Coast, Fla. and hit with him and watched him play.

He’s grown more than a foot since then, to 6-foot-10, and gotten five years older. But he’s still the same kinda goofy kid with deep humility and respect for others, and a low-key demeanor that almost borders on catatonic sometimes.
Except now, he’s a freaking Wimbledon champion. In a week no one saw coming, least of all him, Opelka won the junior boys singles title Sunday, his first-ever Grand Slam title and becoming the first tennis major champion from his hometown.

I was along for the ride “virtually” all week, watching Opelka’s matches on the Internet, interviewing him each day for my part-time writing gig at FlaglerLive.com (his town’s best news source/website), and marveling at how this kid who has gotten zero of the hype accorded other U.S. prospects showed he’s every bit the potential star they are.

One of my favorite things about being a sportswriter was watching a kid grow up and mature athletically right before your eyes; I felt more than a little pride Sunday that the little boy I first met became this enormous champion.

Djokovic. Serena. Opelka. Worthy title winners, all.

**Finally today, one of my favorite character actors from the last 30 years on TV died over the weekend. Roger Rees, who so perfectly played Kirstie Alley’s billionaire boyfriend Robin Colcord, and then showed a terrific comedy touch as Lord John Marbury on “The West Wing” died on Saturday.

He was 71 and an accomplished Broadway actor. But to me, he’ll always be Marbury, the loony but brilliant political ambassador who the Bartlet administration called on from time to time.

This is one great scene of his, but he had so many more.

Good News Friday: 2 St. Louis Rams live as homeless men for a day. A great ad about parent and child seeing roles reverse. And my man Reilly Opelka, tearing it up at the French Open

Happy Friday! I’m on my way to Delaware this weekend so I’m a happy fella; always love going back to the site of my college years. Attending a fundraiser to try to help save my old college newspaper; should be good times with old friends.

First up today, I thought this was a gesture above and beyond what athletes normally do.  St. Louis Rams players Chris Long and William Hayes drove through poverty-stricken St. Louis neighborhoods all the time, and one day Hayes suggested the two of them really get to see the homeless problem in the city up close.

So with a security guard in tow, Hayes and Long spend 24 hours on the street, living the homeless life. ESPN did an outstanding feature on the pair, following them for the day.

Fantastic piece, and great to see two athletes actually trying to see how the less-fortunate spend their days.

**Next up today, maybe it’s because I sometimes feed my baby son using the “airplane” technique that this commercial, from the AARP, moved me so much.

It’s a wonderful, wordless tale of a daughter and her father, and how the roles reverse many years later. I just thought it was so sweet.

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**Finally today, so there’s a kid playing the French Open juniors who I have a personal connection to, and he’s been tearing it up this week.

Longtime readers may remember the post I wrote two years ago about Reilly Opelka, a kid from Palm Coast, Fla., who I first wrote about when he was 11 and I was a sportswriter in Daytona Beach (about 20 minutes from Palm Coast). While I was able to win some points off him at age 11, Reilly grew up to be a 6-foot-10 phenom who has been a highly ranked junior player for the past couple of years, and turned professional in April.

Well, despite turning pro the 17-year-old is still eligible to play the Juniors events at the Grand Slams, and despite only winning one match at a junior Slam event prior to this week, he roared to the quarterfinals this week before losing on Thursday, beating the No.1-ranked junior player in the world along the way. I talked to him Thursday and wrote a story for FlaglerLive.com, an excellent news website based in his hometown.

Very happy for Reilly and his family, who are class acts all the way. Keep an eye out for his name on the pro circuit; this kid’s going places.

A cool personal U.S. Open story. A “Cosby Show”-“Blurred Lines” mix. And Captain Kirk reacts to Miley Cyrus.

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This whole blog post was written with tissues nearby, as I mourn yet another Roger Federer early exit from a Grand Slam Tournament…

So I went back to the U.S. Open on Monday, for the fourth time in a week.
This time though, I didn’t go as an obsessed fan. I went as a good old working sportswriter, like I used to be.

If you’ll indulge me, it was one of the cooler assignments I’ve ever gotten to do, not just because it was the Open, but because of the player I was there to cover.

I first met Reilly Opelka when he was 12 years old, and a local junior tennis stud in Palm Coast, Fla., right outside Daytona Beach, where I worked at the time. I heard about him through some tennis people I knew there, and I went out to his house one day to do a story on him.
It was to be nothing more than a “local kid shows promise in a sport” story, one newspaper reporters like me do all the time.
I found Reilly’s parents to be charming, and the kid to be really down-t0-earth and sweet. I hit some balls with him on their backyard court and he had me sweating quite a bit, but I think I was still a little better than him (maybe).

I followed his junior career a little bit over the next few years, but not as much since I moved back to NY two years ago. I knew he was training full-time at the USTA National Development Center in Boca Raton, which meant he was a serious prospect in the sport.
Fast forward to Sunday, when I was looking at the U.S. Open juniors draw, and saw Reilly’s name on the entry sheet.
I was stunned. He just turned 16, and last week he won two qualifying matches, and now, unbelievably, a kid who three years ago I was still able to win points off of, was scheduled for a first-round match on Monday.
I caught up with his parents during the long rain-delay at the Open, and they had this “can you believe we’re actually here to watch Reilly at the Open?” expression on their face the whole time we chatted.
It was a great thrill for them, even though Reilly’s match got rained out Monday (he’s now scheduled to play today).
And if he grows up to be a Grand Slam champion, well, hey, I can remind him that I dominated him when he was 12.

**Next up, in case you’re not quite sick of that Robin Thicke song yet, a pretty funny mash-up involving “Blurred Lines” and “The Cosby Show.”

Personally, given that Robin Thicke is Alan Thicke’s son, using “Growing Pains” would’ve been more appropriate.

“Show me that smile again…” my knowledge of 1980s TV theme songs is unsurpassed!

And finally, because this also made me laugh Monday night, Captain Kirk and the Starship Enterprise react to that hideous Miley Cyrus performance at the VMA’s…(hat tip to my friends Scott and Dinah, who alerted me to it on Facebook)