By Matt Cronin, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
Come hell or high water, Rajeev Ram is going to keep attacking. An old-school player on a tour full of new-school power baseliners, Ram loves to serve and volley.
He doesn’t do it on every point or on every first serve, but it’s the foundation of his game, and if he continues to play at the level he did last week in Newport, he should be a threat all summer long.
It was at the grass-court tournament in Newport where he won his sole title in 2009, and in 2012, he once again punched away winners and reached the semifinals.
After Newport he will play three straight Emirates Airline US Open Series tournaments in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington, and possibly Toronto and Cincinnati.
He loves fast courts, winning two Challengers in Germany and Italy at the end of last year on carpet. This year, he’s reached the semis of Tallahassee, the final of Leon, and he reached the last round of qualifying at Wimbledon.
In Newport, he bested fellow American veteran Michael Russell and Japanese sensation Kei Nishikori.
The 28-year-old says that his success is a combination of playing on a surface he’s comfortable on and putting the pieces of the puzzle together. The net is his friend, even though many players treat it like a jilted lover they get close to but do not embrace when they are putting away short balls.
"It’s what I know and what I’m going to try to do," Ram said of his attacking style. "It’s not common, and you don't see it on tour much anymore. It’s tougher, but it also plays to my advantage because the other guys don’t see it as much."
The surfaces on the tour have slowed down some -- not just the grass but some hard courts, too -- so it’s not easy for men who are willing to come in off big first serves to know that the world’s four best players -- Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray -- are also the world’s four most accomplished return of servers, and all of them are essentially baseliners, even if they are willing to close in on the net later in points.
"It’s very tough," Ram said. "I can’t serve and volley all the time and have to mix it up, maybe come in off the first ball or the second ball. There is still room for it, but there aren’t true serve-and-volleyers like there used to be."
If a player is going to serve and volley and chip and charge, he has to be willing to take risks and face the fact that he is going to be passed on occasion, sometimes more frequently than he wants to. Some players simply don’t like to look bad when stretching way out to try and punch a volley and find themselves watching a screaming winner down the line.
Net rushers have to take risks and hope that they win the majority of their rushes. If they consistently win six out of 10 points, the odds are that the style will result in multiple.
"You have to have thick skin and a short memory," Ram said. "If I won six out of 10 points, it’s a good day, and I probably win that match."
Ram could very well be peaking at 28, or he might not be. But what is fair to say is that players are increasingly playing excellent ball well into their late 20s and even to the age of 30, as Federer showed in winning his 17th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon.
"It seemed like a guy’s prime was 25 to 28, and now I feel guys might be in their primes between 27 and 30," he said. "You are mentally more mature, understand the game better, and with the advancements that we’ve seen in the physical aspect of the game and guys traveling with physios, they are keeping in better shape and are able to play until their late 20s and still be healthy."
Ram himself is now traveling with a physio, Ryan Harbor, whom he met at the gym he works out at in Indianapolis. He thinks that preventing injuries before they get out of control is key, as is having someone around to help with daily rehabilitation of common tennis ailments, like a sore shoulder, back or leg.
"It’s more about being healthy and improving all the time," he said. "Once you’ve been on tour seven or eight years, you know what you are doing. It’s good to have a coach part of the time, but I think it's better to have physio."
An all-state high school star in Carmel, Ind., and a standout player at the University of Illinois during their undefeated season in 2003, Ram is thought of by some as a doubles specialist, but he is not. While he has had more success in doubles than singles, winning six titles to one in singles, it’s the individual part of the sport that gets him the most excited, which is why he is willing to play Challengers instead of making a full-time push in doubles. That is tempting, considering that he and his regular partner, Scott Lipsky, are 12th in the race to the ATP finals in London, where eight teams qualify. But they will split for the rest of the summer.
"We looked at it, and we decided that the summer is hot and tough, and I really wanted to focus on my singles," Ram said. "It’s a tough situation because doubles takes practice, as well, and it’s hard for me to spend the time on court with him, and that’s unfair, so we are taking a little break."
Ram says that he will do whatever it takes to get his singles game to where he wants it to be.
"My goal at the beginning of the year was to be in the main draw of the US Open," he said.
Andwith his success in Rhode Island, he's well on his way to reaching his goal.