By Matt Cronin, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
World-class tennis players come from all kinds of backgrounds. Case in point: Ricardas Berankis, who parents worked as a taxi driver and a postal worker. The 2007 US Open junior champion says his mother no longer works at the post office – she’s now is a housewife -- but his dad still does drive a cab. If his son happens to make it very big on the international tennis scene, both parents may never have to work again.
The 22-year-old Berankis is still trying to establish his place in the professional ranks. As talented as the Lithuanian is, he has already suffered a rash of injuries that have set back his development.
Berankis feels good now though, as he believes that a recent groin surgery has taken care of consistent problems in that area, including two torn muscles. On Friday, he reached his first ATP final with a 7-5, 6-1 victory over Australia’s Marinko Matosevic on Saturday at the Farmers Classic in Los Angeles. Berankis had contested his first tour-level event in nearly a year last week as a qualifier at the BB&T Atlanta Open, where he recorded his first tour level win -- over Russia’s Dmitry Tursunov -- since March of 2011.
"It’s not nice to get injured, but a lot of players get injured and you have to deal with it and find a way to work your way through," Berankis said. "Now I feel more confident."
The former world’s top junior credits his parents for being supportive but points to his coach, Remigijus Balzekas, as being the man responsible for his tennis success. Balzekas had been following Berankis’s progress and when he was nine, he offered to coach him for free at his academy in Lithuania. Eleven years later, Berankis would become the first Lithuanian player to reach the Wimbledon main draw.
It could be said that Berankis turned pro too early because it’s become rare to see any young player become a significant force on the ATP Tour until he is at least 20, and even less likely to have a 17 year old make a mark on a consistent basis.
Yet Berankis had done just about all he could at the junior level accomplishment-wise -- he really had no choice to throw himself into the lion’s lair.
"There was a big difference between my game and the men’s game," said Berankis. "It took me a while to get used to how fast the pros played, how they concentrated and how physically strong they were."
Berankis is very fast, hits pretty hard off both wings and anticipates well, but compared to the modern ATP field -- where successful players skew taller and taller -- he is at least at a slight disadvantage as he stands only 5-feet-9. Berankis doesn't feel that makes much of a difference, as at least in the junior ranks, as he beat almost everyone put in front of him. Two of his peers, Bernard Tomic and Grigor Dimitrov have already cracked the top 55, but he’s not concerned that he’s fallen behind them (by the way, both Tomic and Dimitrov won the US Open juniors in the two years following Berankis’ title run).
"It didn’t take me much longer to get into the top 100 than them, but the bad luck was injuries," said Berankis, who is currently ranked No. 142 but reached a career No. 73 after the 2011 Australian Open when he reached the third round. "It’s not because I can’t play at the same level with them."
Like many teens, Berankis didn’t pay enough attention to his body when he was younger and now he spends more time doing injury prevention and rehabilitation work than once did. There is no question he has a burning desire to succeed: After a lousy summer of 2011 stretch he returned to Europe and played eight Challengers, where he reached 4 semifinals and one final.
While there is no guarantee as to whether former junior Grand Slam champions will be standout pros, of the 15 US Open boys’ singles champions between 1995 and 2010, only two ended up being marginal pros and six of them became top 10 players, including Andy Roddick (2000), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2003) and Andy Murray (2004).
That is a great sign for Berankis. If he can stay healthy and continue his progress, the steady Lithuanian has to push himself to his limits. He has to take more risks and control more of the points.
"Sometimes you have to wait little, but I still have to put pressure and hit as many winners as I can," Berankis said.