Like the tote bag rule. At last year’s US Open, Opelka was fined $10,000 for carrying “Unapproved bags” on court with him. It was a problem that only Opelka could face. As all of his competitors use bags of “approved” sports brands, Opelka prefers a bag he received from his sponsor in Antwerp, Tim van Laere Gallery. Van Laere, it turns out, make a cool dish, in a Pepto pink shade, embellished with the phrase “Art x Tennis Club”. But since a contemporary art gallery isn’t technically a gear maker, according to the rules, Opelka has to keep the bag in her closet. But as any fashionista knows, the rules will be broken. Van Leare gave him a painting because of his troubles.
Opelka explains that his obsession with art has grown naturally, the deeper he delves into Rick’s world, Prada, Loewe and Ann Demeulemeester. In the car, he pulls out his phone to show me some of the art he’s acquired for his budding collection. He has a work by Belgian artist Rinus Van de Veldeand another work by the controversial German painter and performance artist Jonathan Meese. “When I first entered art, I hated [Meese],” said Opelka. “I was like, ‘I don’t understand him, he’s crazy.’ Then I watched his performances and I watched the way he spoke, and I was drawn to him. He preached that art should dictate the world — a dictatorial art regime.” Now, thanks to his sponsor, Opelka doesn’t just play for the money – he’s also playing for the sick art: according to their agreement, if Opelka wins a great battle, van Laere will reward him with a prize. Painting by an artist on the gallery’s listing.
At the hotel, Opelka ducks into the bathroom to see her custom Thom Browne. Browne is known for its shrinking body proportions, but the brand’s partnerships with NBA players like LeBron James have paid dividends to huge athletes of all types. When Opelka appeared, he wore a black cardigan over a white shirt and tie, cropped two-tone tweed pants, and a pair of brogues Thom Browne had left behind since the brand dressed the Cleveland Cavaliers. in their 2018 playoffs.
When we went to the art house Paris Opera for the performance, Opelka said he had considered wearing Thom Browne to court in the past. “Thom is great, and that would make sense, because he was inspired by the classic tennis style: Arthur Ashe, people like that,” he said. The same thing he saw elsewhere in the draw hurt him. “The kits themselves, they are all the same color, they are all very similar. Every brand shoots at Indian Wells, so the vibe is exactly the same. There’s nothing unique about it anymore, and sadly,” he said. I asked, why does he think tennis players haven’t taken a page out of the NBA’s playbook yet, and turned their tunnel walks into little fashion shows? “We are a solo sport,” Opelka replied. “Whatever goes wrong with us, has a direct effect. So I think the way the business structure of tennis is set up is like a kind of conservative culture where people are so afraid to be different.”
However, with a business structure designed around playing for the arts and wearing clothes that fit on the field, Opelka can be as different as he wants to be. Then I saw him on the terrace outside the opera house, enjoying a glass of champagne after the show. He accepted requests for selfies from a few fans, tiptoeing down to get his head in the frame. The performance, a lengthy and dramatic procession of opera coats and intricate layers of decoration, he said, was “beautiful,” he said. He had met Browne after and was clearly still curious from the experience, his eyes widening slightly and a wide smile on his face. But he’s still an elite athlete, and he has to take care of his recovering body. As he made his way to the exit, a bit of a hindrance in his generous stride, he said he’d decided to take the rest of the day off. “The chairs this fashion week,” he says, “are not built for seven legs.”