By Steve Galluzzo, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
LOS ANGELES -- Less than 10 miles from Hollywood, Ricardas Berankis is scripting quite a Cinderella story this week at the Farmers Classic.
The upsets continued on quarterfinal day at the Los Angeles Tennis Center and the Lithuanian qualifier authored the most stunning result with his straight-sets victory over fourth-seeded Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in the opening match on Straus Stadium. It was a shocker because the 141st-ranked Berankis had almost been bounced in the first round of qualifying six days earlier by 595th-ranked Dennis Lajola.
However, Berankis has been on a roll since he escaped with a 6-3, 5-7, 7-5 victory at UCLA's sycamore courts, reeling off five successive victories without dropping a single set. After downing Lajola he beat Clay Thompson of nearby Venice, 6-2, 6-4, then beat Marcel Felder of Uruguay, 6-2, 6-3.
In the first round of the main draw Berankis surprised Bjorn Phau of Germany, the No. 7 seed, 7-6 (8), 6-4, and he followed that with a 6-4, 7-5 triumph over Russian Igor Andreev. Friday's victory, though, might be the sweetest because it erased a straight-sets loss to Mahut in Atlanta last summer.
"I'm enjoying being here and feeling good," said Berankis, who at the age of 22 is the youngest player left in the draw. "I got lucky on a couple of the points, but I’m happy I was able to control my emotions. It was one break each set but I had a lot of chances."
Mahut is best known for his epic 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68 loss to John Isner in the first round at Wimbledon in 2010 -- the longest match in tennis history at 11 hours, 5 minutes. Berankis, though, never gave the 66th-ranked Frenchman time to find his groove. The Lithuanian star had 10 break points (nine in the first set) and faced only three while winning 79 percent of his first-serve points in a match that took 1 hour, 29 minutes.
"It was great to get through this in two sets," said Berankis, who converted on his sixth break point of the ninth game to take a 5-4 lead in the first set, lost only one point to hold serve, then broke Mahut again to open the second set. "The quicker the better."
For the last two years, Berankis' biggest challenge has been staying healthy. The Bradenton, Florida, resident was sidelined for four months last year with a right pelvis stress fracture before coming back on the Challenger circuit in July. While playing a qualifying match for the SAP Open in San Jose in February, Berankis was forced to retire with a groin injury. He decided to undergo surgery, then returned in May to lead Lithuania's Davis Cup triumph over Greece. The next week he lost in the first round of the Roma Open and he opted to skip the rest of the clay court season. His victory over Russian Dmitry Tursinov in the first round of the Atlanta BB&T Open last week was his first ATP World Tour win since March 2011 in Indian Wells.
Berankis became the first qualifier to reach the Farmers Classic semifinals since Newport Beach, California, native Carsten Ball lost to Sam Querrey in the 2009 final. Before his injury problems began Berankis rose to as high as 73rd in the rankings in January 2011.
"It's been good not playing with pain," Berankis said. "It's hard enough to win when you feel good. When you don't, it's very difficult. This has been a good week for me. I want to keep it going. That first match [against Phau] gave me confidence and I've kept it up."
Having made his first ATP World Tour semifinal, Berankis takes on sixth-seeded Australian Marinko Matosevic on Saturday. Matosevic ousted Michael Russell, 6-2, 6-3, to avenge a straight-sets defeat to the American in qualifying for the 2011 Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. Russell, 34, was the oldest player in the Farmers Classic field, but he was treated for a back injury between sets and could not pull off a second straight upset after having swept top-seeded Benoit Paire the day before.
Matosevic, 26, is looking forward to playing Berankis, who beat him in straight sets in the first round of the 2011 Australian Open.
"He crushed my dreams last year in front of my home fans and that was a hard loss to take," said Matosevic, who is ranked No. 81 and has made one final, two quarterfinals and now a semifinal after winning only three Tour matches last year. "I got him back [at the Legg Mason Clasic] in Washington, D.C. last summer but it was no consolation. I'm going to have to be on top of my game to beat him."
Later in the afternoon, unseeded Rajeev Ram continued his impressive play in L.A. by serve-and-volleying his way to a 7-6 (3), 6-3 upset of third-seeded Argentinian Leonardo Mayer. It marked their first-ever ATP World Tour meeting. Ram, who is now in his second semifinal in three weeks, found himself down 3-1 in the second set before rebounding to win the last five games.
"His serve got to me for awhile and I felt myself getting negative so I had to regroup mentally and I fortunately I was serving well myself," said Ram, who was scheduled to play doubles with Russell on Friday evening. They ultimately defaulted their quarterfinal match with Great Britain's third-seeded Jamie Delgado and Ken Skupski because of Russell's injury in singles.
Ram was born in Denver but now lives in Indiana. The 28-year-old is ranked 117th and improved to 6-3 on the ATP World Tour this year. He believes it is no coincidence that veteran players are having career breakthroughs across the sport.
"Just look at Roger [Federer] getting back to No. 1 and Michael (Russell) being top 100 for many, many years," Ram said. "It's the nature of the tour right now. You don't see any 20 or 21-year-old kids in the top 10. I've been lucky enough to stay healthy and I'll keep playing as long as I can keep improving."
Ram will face Querrey in Saturday's second semifinal. The No. 2 seeded Querrey, vying for a third Farmers Classic title in four years, was leading Xavier Malisse 6-2, 3-1 Friday night when the Belgian retired with a knee injury. It marked the 11th consecutive win at the tournament for Querrey, whose last loss came in the first round to Mardy Fish in 2007.