If the afternoon semifinal offered an intriguing contrast of styles, the evening semifinal featured two players with essentially the same style and strategy: pounding massive first serves and attacking the first balls that they saw. Central to the battle between Rajeev Ram and Sam Querrey, were not their tactics but their execution.
In a generally straightforward first set that lasted just 29 minutes, the California native capitalized on the only break point that he earned and saved the only break point that he faced. Beyond those two key junctures, service games flowed in an untroubled pattern with few rallies lasting more than four or five strokes. The 2010 Los Angeles champion struck the ball with consistently more depth and weight than his opponent, jerking him off the court before Ram seized the initiative and donating fewer unforced errors than the veteran. But the second set did not proceed so smoothly for the second seed, against whom the underdog mounted a stern challenge.
Lasting over an hour, the second set started with an apparent lull of energy from Querrey, who allowed Ram to catch his breath with an easy hold and a few carelessly netted forehands in his next service game. An experienced competitor, Ram capitalized swiftly on the opportunity to capture his first and only break, a break that he defended valiantly during the eight-deuce game that followed. In that longest game of this semifinal, the former doubles specialist cracked an exquisite backhand smash on a break point, slammed an ace on another, and deployed his pace-blunting slice to devastating effect against an opponent who prefers rallying from the baseline at a steady speed. This tennis version of smoke and mirrors could not last forever, though, nor could Querrey’s lull on a night when his faithful fan club of “Samurai” and most other spectators roared with delight at each of his aces and forehand winners. Able to regain the break in the seventh game, he punished untimely second serves from the veteran and threaded the needle on passing shots that defanged Ram’s net-rushing tactics. Displaying some occasional deftness at the net himself, Querrey would spurn a break point in his last return game of the set before coming dangerously close to dropping serve in the twelfth game. That wobble, which almost dragged him into the third set, merely awakened the favorite for the tiebreak that followed.
Reaching the tiebreak with an ace, Querrey earned an immediate minibreak in the tiebreak on another passing-shot winner and would ride that momentum to victory, never conceding another service point. Instead, he cracked an ace, a service winner, and a 133-mph delivery on match point that created the routine forehand winner into an open court. Although Ram’s spirited resistance could not extend the match, he at least will leave Los Angeles knowing that he forced one of the best American men of this generation to reach his highest performance level. On his part, Querrey will gain confidence from his success both when he came to the net and when his opponent came to the net, two departments in which he has struggled chronically throughout his career.
The clear favorite against Berankis, about nine inches shorter than him, the American will attempt to reclaim the title that he won from Andy Murray in 2010. Contesting his first career final, the Lithuanian qualifier will need to overcome not only Querrey’s massive serve but an occasion that he never has experienced before. One week after Roddick claimed the trophy in Atlanta, another American might follow him on the other coast and put the “US” in the US Open Series more emphatically than it has appeared there in recent years.