Rajeev Ram: Throwback to Sampras?

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Sampras “twin” advances to Farmers Classic Semi

By Josh Gajewski

LOS ANGELES – A few days ago, Pete Sampras came to the Farmers Classic and said hello to his twin. That was the great champion’s own word for Rajeev Ram, and if you went by looks

alone, well, you might not get it. Ram is Indian-American. Three inches taller. And about all these two have in common, aesthetically speaking, is thinning hair.

Put a racket in Ram’s hand, though, and then just like that – voilà! – soon you will see something of a magic trick. The trophy-stance serve, the one-handed backhand, the crisp, undercutting volley – they’re all right there, Sampras’ elegant groundstrokes and style, still alive on the pro tour so long as Ram is around.

And Friday in Westwood – basically Sampras’ backyard, as he lives nearby – those strokes earned Ram a 7-6 (7-3), 6-3 win over Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer, sending Ram to his second tournament semifinal this month. The doubles specialist had also reached the singles semis of the grass-court event Newport, R.I., where he fell to Lleyton Hewitt in three sets, and on Saturday will face fellow American Sam Querrey for a berth in the Farmers final.

After the match, Ram – who as a kid studied videos of Sampras and emulated everything he saw, and we have the video to prove it – spoke of meeting (and hitting with) his hero, the endangered serve-and-volley style he still employs, as well as the changing game and rackets of today.

INSIDE TENNIS: You’ve been at this grind for a while – 28 years old, lots of Challenger events, only one pro title – what keeps you going?

RAJEEV RAM: The idea that I can continue to improve. I feel like I can get up every day and get a little bit better, you know, whether that means winning a Challenger, winning a match at a tour event, winning a tour event, winning a doubles match – whatever. I can get a little bit better. Whenever that stops I’m going to be done probably, but that hasn’t stopped yet.

REPORTER: You’ve reached two semifinals in three weeks…

RAM: I think it’s a culmination, it just didn’t happen overnight. I mean, I kind of reevaluated my tennis – not like, “Oh, do I want to keep playing?” – but just how I’m going about it and making improvements, in February and March this year. And I started to really pick up some things I could get better at, and also just focusing on my singles game.

IT: What was that reevaluation of your game? What did you see?

I felt like I was giving away too much, honestly. I was giving too many points away. … If a guy beats me by hitting a lot of winners, then he beats me, but I felt like I was giving too many points away both mentally and maybe going for too much on a ball that maybe I didn’t have the opportunity to do that with.

IT: Xavier Malisse said yesterday that at 32, on the big points, he’s learned to let the other guy make the mistake. That sounds like what you’re talking about.

RAM: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a big deal, and if a guy comes up with the goods, he comes up with the goods. I just think that’s part of maturing as a player, you realize what you need to do. And some of the best guys in the world – like I played Hewitt a couple times – and I don’t think there’s anyone better in the world at making you beat him.

IT: You still employ the serve-and-volley game, which is a dying art. Have you stopped doing that as much, over the years, as the game has moved to the baseline?

RAM: Yeah, probably, but I still do it predominantly on my first serve. That’s how I learned to play tennis, that’s how I’ve done it my whole life, and at this point that’s probably one of the things I can’t change.

IT: Did you ever get to play with Sampras, your hero?

RAM: I’ve hit with him, yeah. We hit here in L.A., maybe a year ago or something.

IT: Did he make any comments about looking into a mirror?

RAM: Yeah, he was funny about it. He’s been around a bit (this week) and he called me his twin the other day (when we passed each other). But yeah, we hit for awhile, and then we started hitting serves, and he was like, “OK, I wasn’t’ going to say anything, but now I have to say something. …” I just told him what happened [Ram emulating Sampras’ strokes as a kid], and I don’t think he was offended by it. I sure hope not.

REPORTER: Can the serve-and-volley style still win today?

RAM: I sure hope so, because I’m trying to. But when it comes to being No. 1 in the world AND winning Slams consistently, I think it’s a tough ask. And the other thing, I don’t think kids now even attempt that style. At 15, it’s too late. It has to be something you’ve worked on your whole life. … With the technology (of rackets and strings), the speed of the courts, I don’t think you see that too much (anymore).

IT: Michael Russell said that in his 14 years, he started with a small-headed, normal-length Head Prestige and is now playing an extended-length Babolat with a bigger head and looser strings. How big has changing equipment, over time, been for you?

RAM: Huge. I used to play with a 90-square-inch Wilson racket with all gut (string). For me, it was a monster change because now I play with a 98-square-inch Head Prestige with half Luxilon (polyester) and half gut. For Michael, his Babolat, that’s like the other side of the stratosphere for me, so for me that was a big change, going from my small little Wilson – basically a small piece of wood – to a proper tennis racket.

IT: When did you make that change?

RAM: April of last year. And I played with that Wilson for 10 years.

IT: Wow, so that small headsize all the way up until last year. Roger Federer is the only other guy to play with such a small headsize.

RAM: Yeah, when Wilson came out with (Roger’s frame) in 2001, I switched to it and played with it for 10 years. I was trying all at the end of the offseason of 2010 to find something else, and this is what I found.

REPORTER: Pete played with his small frame throughout his career.

RAM: Yeah, I mean that Wilson racket (I had) was great – they made it for Roger and I liked it, but it just got too tough, too tough to deal with guys hitting the ball so hard and you have basically the sweet spot of a dime.

IT: And in the last two years, people have said about Roger – though perhaps this will now quiet down now – that perhaps he should switch to a bigger frame.

RAM: I mean, hey, look, you’re not going to question anything that guy does. He does whatever he does pretty well. But, for any other normal human being, it’s too hard. There’s a reason he’s the only guy out there with it.