July 28, 2012

Ricardas Berankis advanced to his first ATP Tour final, beating Marinko Matosevic 7-5, 6-1 on Saturday in the Farmers Classic at the Los Angeles Tennis Center.

The 22-year-old Lithuanian will face the winner of the all-American night semifinal between two-time champion Sam Querrey and Rajeev Ram.

Before qualifying for the event on UCLA's campus, Berankis had played only two tour matches in the past year because of pelvic injuries.

"It's really amazing," Berankis said. "I really didn't even think of it before coming here. You still have it in your mind a little bit, but when you come to play qualies it's difficult to think of the final. Still, I had that belief in myself. I'm feeling great on the court at the moment and looking forward to tomorrow."

Berankis, ranked 141st going into the event, will move inside the top 100 after his four straight-set wins over seventh-seeded Bjorn Phau, Igor Andreev, No. 4 Nicolas Mahut and No. 6 Matosevic and could go up to about No. 75 by winning the championship. His career high is No. 73 on Jan. 31, 2011, before his injuries.

Berankis took control of a tight opening set by breaking his Australian opponent at love for a 6-5 lead, then opened the second set with a service break and a hold that seemed to demoralize Matosevic.

"When a guy gets broken at the end of the first set, he's not so good emotionally," Berankis said. "I think I tried to use it as quick as possible, one or two mistakes (by Matosevic) and here it comes, it's 15-all or 15-30, and also to put pressure on his second serve. That's when you get chances to break again."

When it was over, Berankis hugged Remigijus Balzekas, the man who has been his coach and second father for 13 years, and said the thing that made him the most nervous in preparation for the match was the thought that airline scheduling problems might keep Balzekas from arriving in time to see him play.

That almost happened. Balzekas had flown from Lithuania to Washington, D.C., on Thursday and he and Berankis planned to reunite there for next week's tournament. But after Berankis made it into the semifinals, he asked Balzekas to fly out. Balzekas left Washington at 6 a.m. EDT, almost missed his connection in Phoenix because his plane from Washington was delayed, and got to UCLA about 30 minutes before the match.

"It was the most important thing for me (to have Balzekas here," Berankis said.

It was important for Balzekas, too.

Berankis wears a chain on his neck that holds an NCAA Division II championship ring given to him by Remigijus's son, Alvaras, who was his best friend. Alvaras won that title while at Lynn College in Florida, then at 23 was killed in a traffic accident by a drunken driver. His father leaned on Berankis for support.

"If not for him I don't know what would have happened to me," Balzekas said. "It was a very, very tough time in my life."

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