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On The Rise... Richard Berankis

DEUCE

Berankis© Getty ImagesAt just 20, Richard Berankis already holds the distinction of being Lithuania’s highest-ranked player in ATP history.

Don’t tell Richard Berankis that nice guys finish last. The former junior US Open  champion and World No. 1 has a winning attitude and game that has earned the favour of Roger Federer and driven his steady climb on the ATP World Tour.

Ask anyone about Richard Berankis and the last thing you will hear is how good a tennis player he is. That is because they are too busy telling you how great a person he is. Fresh faced with golden boy good looks and Boy Scout morals, Berankis is the kid next door who made it big, breaking into the Top 100 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings at 20 years of age.

From Roger Federer to the boardroom at the ITF, Richard Berankis impresses everyone he meets. A former ITF No. 1 junior, he was such a good example that they put him on the cover of their annual worldwide development publication. And he made such an impact on Roger Federer that he invited Berankis to Dubai for pre-season training.

“He made such an impact on Federer that he invited Berankis to Dubai”

“I remember very well hitting with him early one morning during the Davis Cup in Kuanas in 2003,” recalls Dave Miley, ITF Director of Development. “And I was very impressed with his level. It was obvious to all of us at the ITF that Richard had a big future in tennis.”

“Best of all he has such great human qualities and is a real pleasure to be around,” says Frank Zlesak, ITF Development coach. “His working attitude is great and he is an excellent student who can apply what you teach very quickly... A coach dreams to get a kid like Richard Berankis in his hands."

To better give you an idea of just how quickly he learns and how hard he works, consider that as a 16 year old Berankis lost in the qualifying rounds of the US Open juniors. The next year he would win the tournament without dropping a set.

Berankis“After losing in the qualifying of the US Open juniors he was crying so badly,” remembers Zlesak. “And the next year he wins it.”

Like a good mountaineer, Berankis has been able to climb steadily towards the summit without taking any steps backwards. His rise to the Top 100 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings is not highlighted with shocking upsets or Grand Slam surprises, but rather a more methodical approach founded on doing a lot of little things very well.

“Tennis is much more difficult these days than it was 10 years ago,” says Paul Annacone. “It is taking a lot longer to break the Top 100. So when someone like Richard is 20 years old and already ranked 70, that is a really good sign. He has a lot of the characteristics and traits that lend to having a good solid career: hard work, discipline, good perspective without huge emotional swings and an understanding of what goes on in the tour.”

Richard Berankis is splendidly built. His 5’9” (175cm), 155 pound (70kg) body is constructed like a battleship, iron clad solid, with every muscle group from the delts down to the quads pumped and ready for action. Take a good look at the deep ravine running straight down his back and that is all you need to know about the boy from Vilnius, Lithuania. It is called backbone, and Richard Berankis has plenty to spare.

Critics watch him play and might say he lacks a knock-out punch. But those who have been in his corner will tell you that it’s not like the kid brought a knife to a gunfight. His signature stroke is the return of serve and once he gets past the first exchange and into the rally he can play up in the court running you around the world in 80 days. And when the pressure is on, don’t let the sweet smile fool you, Berankis plays like an angry pit bull.

“When the pressure is on, don’t let the sweet smile fool you, Berankis plays like an angry pit bull”

“The return is something that will allow him to get control of the point early because he can take the pace and throw it back with interest,” says Annacone. “Richard can play early on the baseline like Andre and move you all over the map. Or he can back up and absorb your pace like Lleyton. His challenge is going to be mixing and matching when to play close to the baseline and when to back up. So that will be the learning curve for him. I think that will come with experience.”

Ask Richard about himself and he is more likely to deflect the conversation to others. Like the time he was invited to train with Roger Federer in Dubai last year.

“Practising with Roger is an amazing experience,” says Berankis. “He is an idol for me. To have a chance to be around him and go and have dinner with him is just incredible. He is very kind to people. And then sometimes in the locker room he comes up and slaps me on the back and says, ‘Hey Richard, how are you?’ It makes me feel very good.”

BerankisOnce the conversation turns to coaching, Berankis is quick to thank the ITF for all their encouragement, training and financial assistance. But it is the ‘other’ coach in his life, the same one he has had since he was nine years old, that makes him take a deep breath. Anyone who has ever seen Richard and Remigijius “Remis” Balzekas together can see that their relationship is much more than coach and player. Like Rafa and Toni, Sobkin and Youzhny, Marian and Novak, they have transcended the tennis court.

Once they were invited on a hunting trip and given the best spot in the forest, but the guide cautioned to remain quiet.

“We were staying quiet for about 20 minutes and then Remis said, ‘Poor animals. Who could shoot them?’” remembers Berankis. “‘Not me for sure, don’t think you could either,’ and we started to laugh. From that second on, we were not hunting but sitting in the hunting tower for the next three hours and having fun and joking. The gun didn’t even get loaded.”

“Richard has a very big heart,” says Balzekas. “When he was a little kid, already then he wanted to help other people, especially the old ones. He was always very responsible. I remember when I took him to my tennis school, sometimes I had to leave him alone on the court. He had to do some work by himself and he did even more than he was told to.”

Richard Berankis knows the question that is about to be asked. Just as he knows that the writer already knows the answer.
“Why do you wear that ring around your neck?”
“In memory of Alvaras Balzekas.”

“He is like a sponge of information, which I feel will really help him out there”

Alvaras Balzekas is Remis’s son. When Richard moved to Balzekas’s tennis academy outside of Vilnius, coach, son and player became one big happy family. Then a few years later, while attending university in Miami, Alvaras Balzekas was killed by a drunk driver.

“Alvaras was like my brother to me,” admits Berankis. “We were very close friends and had very best moments to remember. After the accident, there were tough times for all of us. It was very hard to concentrate and work hard, but we pushed each other through it. I believe that Alvaras is with me on the court helping me all the time.”

With the support of his guardian angel, Berankis made history two years later as he became the first player from Lithuania to capture a junior Grand Slam title. The landmark victory made a huge impact back home and turned the youngster into an idol.

“Tennis in Lithuania became much more popular after Richard became junior world champion and when he won the US Open juniors,” says Balzekas. “Many kids here in Lithuania want to play like Richard does. They wear the same clothes, and play with the same racquets. Actually tennis became sport number 2-3 in the country, after basketball and soccer.

Berankis“Richard is the most popular young man in Lithuania not only between athletes but also artists. Everybody knows Richard and when you go with him in the street people often come to him for autographs and pictures.”

“He is a great example for developing tennis nations on what can happen when talent and determination are combined with opportunities,” claims the ITF's Miley.

Despite his celebrity status at home, Richard Berankis’s mother remains working in the post office and his father is still a taxi driver. “My parents are very polite and hard working,” says Berankis. “That is the life they taught me. They appreciate very much what Remis has done for me. He took care of me like I was his child. And at the same time, he is my best friend and coach. I will soon pay them all back for all their support.”

These values have already won Berankis admiration, and are expected to serve him well as he looks to continue his progression on the ATP World Tour.

“Richard is very humble, very respectful and asks a lot of questions,” says Annacone. “He wants to learn. He is like a sponge of information, which I feel will really help him out there.”

Richard Berankis is proof plenty that nice guys don’t always finish last.

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