Injuries are unfortunately an all-too-common factor in professional tennis. They’ve struck down all manner of players, with some – like the Williams sisters, Rafael Nadal, Tommy Haas, Maria Sharapova, Juan Martin del Potro and Kim Clijsters – regularly forced to sit out for lengthy periods during their illustrious careers.
Just recently in Australia, we've seen heart-breaking injuries sustained by the perennially-hurt Andrea Petkovic and Brian Baker, with their tearful reactions drawing an outpouring of sympathy from fans and the tennis community.
Another player in that category is Ricardas Berankis, the world No.1 junior in 2007 who was considered among a group alongside Milos Raonic, Bernard Tomic, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori and Ryan Harrison as a new generation of player destined for great things. Yet while his contemporaries have mostly soared, Berankis stuttered, undone by a groin injury.
“The first time also doctors made a mistake – first they were saying it was a bone fracture,” he revealed.
“They told me not to play for three to four months. And that’s what I did; I didn’t pick up a racquet for four months. At the time my ranking was No.73.
“When I came back and played half a year, I was still feeling pain, and I asked at the time what I should do, and they were just saying, ‘no problem, the muscles are weak, just go through it and it will disappear’.
“But last year in February I couldn’t walk anymore. One doctor in the States told me it’s probably a sports hernia, and when he made the cut, he saw that the three muscles were torn off … the first time was just the mistake of doctors, (but) now they’ve sewed it. I had my rehab and now I’m good for half a year already.”
He seemed to harbour no ill-feeling toward the doctor for what was such a disastrous misdiagnosis. But when cheekily asked by a journalist if that doctor was “still alive”, he responded with a grin: “So far, yes,” prompting peals of laughter in the press room.
For all their negatives, injuries also make for heart-warming stories of rebirth and return. And that’s exactly what’s happening with Berankis, the best player that Lithuania has ever produced.
Currently ranked world No.110, the 22-year-old had to come through three rounds of qualifying simply to take his place in the main draw at Melbourne Park. That was no picnic – he found himself down a set and 4-1 in his second round battle against American Bradley Klahn before digging out a gritty win.
Once in the main draw, he straight-setted Sergiy Stakhovsky in round one before recording an extraordinary 6-2 6-3 6-1 victory over German No.25 seed Florian Mayer.
“It was (the) second round match in quallies and I was down 4-6 1-4 … just keep fighting is the main key I think in those kind of matches. Keep knocking on the door and hopefully it’s going to open,” he said of his path through the draw in Melbourne.
The door that has opened is a third round battle against No.3 seed Andy Murray, scheduled on Rod Laver Arena on Saturday, no less. Berankis has never before played on a centre court at a Grand Slam event, something he says will be “nice”.
The first time the Lithuanian played a big-name player at a major was then seventh-ranked David Ferrer, which happened in the third round at Australian Open 2011. How did that go?
“It was a quick match,” he laughed when recalling the 6-2 6-2 6-1 defeat.
“Very quick match. But first match as I said is always tough to see the top player on the other side. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow.”
Standing in his favour is the fact that he’s more familiar with Murray’s game thanks to practicing with the Scot in Brisbane just a few weeks ago. Having also practiced several times with Roger Federer, the stars of the game no longer seem quite so threatening or intimidating.
“Playing a top player is always tough … (but) it’s not going to be a big surprise to see Andy Murray on the other side of the net, I’ll be used to it,” he said.
Berankis is somewhat of an unlikely tennis pro. With little to no tennis history in his small nation, he is just one of four ATP-ranked Lithuanians in the world. His short stature (175cm) makes success even more challenging on a tour of powerful, tall, long-limbed, athletic players.
Yet he has an exceptional mentality, no doubt the reason behind his impressive rise from No.179 – at the nadir of his injury struggles – to what will almost certainly be a top 100 ranking post-Australian Open. It’ll be even higher if he unseats Murray.
“If you keep working hard and you do what you have to do, sooner or later you’re going to break through,” he said, with conviction.
“(Despite being shorter) I think my serve is quite fast, and if I can make it once, that means I can make it twice. If I can make it twice, that means then I can make it 10 times.
“Everything depends on you, so I try to keep up this mentality.”