Like the tote bag rule. At last year’s US Open, Opelka was fined $10,000 for bringing one with her “unapproved bag” with him in court. It’s a problem that only Opelka could face. While all his opponents use bags from “recognized” sports brands, Opelka prefers one he got from his sponsor in Antwerp, Galerie Tim van Laere. Van Laere, it turns out makes a cool bag, in a pepto pink hue, adorned with the phrase ‘Art x Tennis Club’. But since a contemporary art gallery isn’t technically an equipment maker, Opelka should leave the bag in his locker. But as any fashionista knows, rules are made to be broken. Van Leare gave him a painting for his troubles.
His obsession with art came naturally, Opelka explains, as he delved deeper into Rick’s worlds, prada, Loewe and Ann Demeulemeester. In the car, he pulls out his cell phone to show me some of the artwork he’s acquired for his burgeoning collection. He has a work by a Belgian artist Rinus van de Veldeand another by the controversial German painter and performance artist Jonathan Meese. “When I first got into art, I hated it [Meese]’ says Opelka. “I thought, ‘I don’t understand him, he’s crazy.’ Then I watched his performances and I watched him speak and I became addicted to him. He preaches that art must dictate the world – a dictatorship of art.” Thanks to his sponsor, Opelka now not only plays for money – he also plays for sick art: if Opelka wins a Grand Slam, according to the agreement, van Laere will win him with one Reward a painting by an artist from the gallery’s list.
At the hotel, Opelka ducks into a bathroom to don his custom Thom Browne look. Browne is known for shrunken proportions, but the brand’s work with NBA players like LeBron James has paid dividends for enormous athletes of all stripes. When Opelka shows up, he’s wearing a black cardigan over a white shirt and tie, two-tone tweed shorts and a pair of brogues that Thom Browne had left over from when the brand dressed the Cleveland Cavaliers during their 2018 playoff run.
En route to the Paris Beaux-Arts Opera House for the show, Opelka says he has considered wearing Thom Browne on the seat in the past. “Thom is great, and it would make sense because he’s inspired by the classic style of tennis: Arthur Ashe, guys like that,” he says. The equality he sees elsewhere in the draw pains him. “The jerseys themselves are all the same colors, they are all so similar. Every brand does their photo shoots in Indian Wells, so the vibe is exactly the same. There’s nothing unique about it anymore, and it’s sad,” he says. Why, I ask, does he think tennis players haven’t yet taken a page from the NBA playbook and turned their tunnel walks into mini fashion shows? “We’re a solo sport,” answers Opelka. “Everything goes wrong for us, it has a direct impact. So I think the way the business structure of tennis is set up creates a kind of conservative culture where everyone is so afraid to be different.”
However, with a business structure designed to play for the arts and wear big suits on the pitch, Opelka can be as different as he wants. Later I find him on a terrace in front of the opera house, enjoying a glass of champagne after the show. He’s answering selfie requests from some fans, carefully bending down to get his head in the picture. The show, a lengthy and dramatic procession of operatic gowns and intricately layered suits, he says, was “beautiful.” He met Browne afterwards and is clearly still geeeked from the experience, his eyes a little wide and that big smile on his face. But he’s still a top athlete and needs to take care of his recovering body. On the way to the exit, with a slight jerk in his broad stride, he says he’s decided to take the rest of the day off. “These Fashion Week seats,” he says, “are not built for seven feet.”