By Steve Galluzzo, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
LOS ANGELES -- Moments after his semifinal match Saturday at the Farmers Classic, Ricardas Berankis climbed into the stands at the Los Angeles Tennis Center's Straus Stadium to embrace his longtime coach Remigijus Balzekas.
The two have formed an unbreakable bond seldom seen in the world of professional tennis and for Berankis, a 22-year-old qualifier from Lithuania, reaching his first ATP World Tour final meant that much more because Balzekas was there to see it.
"I wasn't sure he was going to make it... he got here about half an hour before the match," Berankis said after his 7-5, 6-1 upset of sixth-seeded Marinko Matosevic. "Remis is like a second father for sure. We have been together for 13 years and that doesn't happen too often in this sport."
Balzekas had flown from Lithuania to Washington, D.C. the day before and followed Berankis' quarterfinal victory over No. 4 Nicolas Mahut on the Internet. The plan was to meet Berankis there for next week's Citi Open, but when Berankis asked him to fly out for Saturday's semifinal Balzekas caught an early morning flight to Phoenix and nearly missed his connecting flight to Los Angeles when the plane was delayed getting to the gate.
"We were sitting on the runway for 14 minutes and I was getting really impatient," Balzekas said. "I was more nervous then than I was watching the match."
There was no reason for Balzekas to worry, at least not after the 10th game. Berankis broke Matosevic at love, then held serve easily to take the first set. He broke Matosevic again to begin the second set and held at love to take a 5-1 lead. He made good on his second match point, clenched his fist and waved to the crowd.
"This is amazing--I didn't think about doing this before I came here," said Berankis, who has won 13 sets in a row dating back to the first round of qualifying July 21. "Of course I had belief in myself but when your going through qualies it's the furthest thing from your mind."
Berankis has knocked off the No. 7, No. 4 and No. 6 seeds on his way to the final and the major reason why is his return of serve and his improved first serve. Against Matosevic, he won 92 percent of his first-serve points (including 11-for-11 in the second set), converted four of his nine break point chances and did not face a break point himself.
"Today, I felt I could get in front of his second serve and on my forehand the ball was sticking to the racket well," said the 5' 9" Berankis, the first player from his country to be ranked in the top 100, rising as high as No. 73 in January 2011. "There's no big secret as far as the serve. I'm not a tall guy, I just hit it as hard as I can and if my motion and toss is the same every time, it will go in."
Balzekas first saw his future pupil on television hitting against a wall when he was only 2 1/2 years old and recognized the youngster's potential immediately.
"It was some instructional video clip and I remember telling my wife 'This kid is going to be a player,'" Balzekas said. "I kept an eye on him from then on and invited him to practice at the Siauliai tennis school when he was 9. I always knew he could be a professional player."
Berankis wears a necklace bearing a ring that was given to him by Balzekas' son Aivaras, who was like an older brother to him. Aivaras, an All-American collegiate player, helped Auburn Montgomery win the NAIA title in 2004 before transferring to Lynn University and he gave his championship ring to his 'little brother' Berankis the following summer. Two months later, in October 2005, Aivaras was hit by a drunk driver in Boca Raton, Florida and died at the age of 23. He was born in the same town (Vilnius) in Lithuania as Berankis.
"That was a tough time in my life and I don't know what would've happened if not for Ricardas," Balzekas said of his son's sudden passing. "Ricardas stayed with my family in my house and he was like a son. He was 15 and he told me 'Let's do it together.' That was six years after I began coaching him and ever since [Aivaras' death] I've devoted more time to him and it's rewarding to see him do so well."
Berankis, who came to L.A. ranked 141st after skipping most of the clay court season to recover from groin surgery, is the second qualifier in four years to make the Farmers Classic final. Should he prevail Sunday he will become the first qualifier to win the singles title in the tournament's 86-year history.
Saturday's victory also lifted Berankis into a second-place tie with Luxembourg's Gilles Muller and Sam Querrey (each has 45 points) in the Emirates Airline US Open Series Bonus Challenge standings. Andy Roddick, who won the BB&T Open in Atlanta last week, leads the race with 70 points. The top three men and women in the standings earn bonus prize money at the US Open.
Berankis will face Querrey for the first time Sunday at 4 p.m. Eastern time. The second-seeded Querrey served 11 aces in his 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory over fellow American Rajeev Ram in Saturday's late semifinal. Querrey had dropped only 16 service points in his first two matches but was broken in the second game of the second set. Ram needed seven deuces to hold for a 3-0 lead, but Querrey broke back when Ram netted an overhead. Querrey took a 3-0 lead in the tiebreaker and ended the match with a forehand winner from the service line.
Querrey, who graduated from Thousand Oaks High in nearby Ventura County, is ranked 57th and is after his third Farmers Classic title. He won back-to-back titles in 2009-10 but missed last year's event with a right shoulder injury. He has won 12 straight matches at his hometown event and was spurred to victory by a vocal group of high school buddies who are called "The Samurai Boys."
Querrey needed three sets to defeat qualifier Carsten Ball in the final three years ago and he expects another tough match Sunday against Berankis, who stands a tad over 5' 8" and is a full 10 inches shorter than the 6' 6" Querrey. This marks the sixth consecutive year that an American has advanced to the finals.
"Ricardas has been serving well no matter how tall he is," Querrey said, dismissing the height discrepancy. "He has played great all week. Winning seven matches in a row anywhere is hard and that's what he's done. This is a special event for me because I'm playing in front of my friends and family, so I'm looking forward to tomorrow."