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Steve Flink: Michael Russell a credit to the game

3/12/2013 5:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The nature of the job I have in writing columns is the emphasis usually placed on elite players. The exploits of Djokovic and Nadal, Federer and Murray, Williams, Sharapova and a few others keep close followers of the game in a perpetual state of intrigue. They inspire us with their enduring greatness, their shotmaking prowess, their almost magical propensity to lift their games at consequential times. From where I sit, it is never tiring to write about the leading players because they are in so many ways the lifeblood of the game.

And yet, there are different yardsticks to accurately measure success in the world of tennis. The depth of talent on the ATP World Tour is too often taken for granted by both fans and the media. First rate professionals with impressive resumes in their own right are largely ignored. Enter Michael Russell, an American who will turn 35 in less than two months, a dedicated craftsman who turned pro back in 1998, a sturdy and resilient competitor who stands currently at No. 70 in the world. Russell has concluded no fewer than six years across his admirable career among the top 100 in the world, including the last four seasons. He has pushed himself steadfastly past injuries and tough setbacks, through year after year of grueling completion, across a good many rigorous afternoons. That Russell is playing perhaps the finest tennis of his career as he closes in on a milestone birthday is abundant proof of his character and durability.

I spent an enjoyable 37 minutes with Russell on the telephone yesterday as he prepared for a Challengers event in Dallas, and at the outset he offered his perspective on how arduous a process it is to remain among the 100 best in a game heavily populated by prime time athletes in their twenties from every corner of the globe. “It is very difficult to be in the top 100,” he told me. “The physical demands day in and day out and playing on hard courts wears down your body. There is not a cushion underneath the asphalt or Decoturf or whatever hard court is in use. It is a very demanding sport and that is why you see a lot of hip, knee and lower back injuries. I spend a good hour-and-a-half a night doing massage, icing, stretching and doing preventative exercises to make sure I stay healthy and my body can withstand the demands of playing matches day in and day out, not to mention travelling all over the world to play these tournaments. That makes it even tougher.”

If somebody had told Russell fifteen years ago that he would be stationed now at No. 70 in the world with a chance to break his personal best record of No.60, would he have bought into that notion?  “That’s a good question,” he responds. “I am almost a little bit obsessive-compulsive. When I have a goal I will do anything to get it done. At the same time, it is a testament to my perseverance and hard work, and I also have a great support team. My wife, Lilly, has been amazing with her support ever since we met in 2004. Without her I honestly wouldn’t be able to continue playing at a high level and hopefully closing in on breaking my career high ranking. My wife does everything. At some tournaments she is my physio and she stretches me, and at a lot of tournaments we make sure to have a kitchen because she is a chef and cooks most of the meals for me. She runs rackets off to the stringer for me in the middle of a match, and sometimes sets up practices. There isn’t a dollar value I could assign to her. It would be extremely expensive if I had to pay her a salary for everything she does. She has tried to make being on the road as close to being at home as possible.”

Having said that, Russell knows full well how big a burden there is on every player to solve his own problems on the court, to meet the enormous demands of competing under extreme stress, and to come through when it matters most in hard fought contests. How much of his success has been dictated by his strong mindset? “I am constantly trying to improve,” he explains. “I always am trying to get better, whether it is my fitness, my strength, my nutrition, my gameplan or my technique. I am always looking for the next edge to help me improve. I don’t look at myself and say, ‘Okay, I am almost 35 and I don’t know how many more years I have left.’ I feel great, just as good as I did ten years ago. So why can’t I play as long as I want and as long as I am successful and still enjoying myself on the court?”

He has indeed enjoyed a considerable amount of success over the years, despite being forced to endure a stretch of years riddled with injuries. Russell broke into the top 100 in 2001, finishing that campaign at No. 88. But the next five years (2002-2006) were essentially ruined by a body that was breaking down. He never finished any of those seasons higher than No. 145, and the low point was 2003 when he hardly played and finished the year at No. 496.

As Russell reflects on that trying period of his life, he says, “That was the most disheartening time in my career for sure. I started to have knee pain and we couldn’t figure out what it was. We kept thinking it was tendinitis so I would take a month off, play one or two tournaments and then my knee would give out again. My ranking just slowly slipped. After about a year of this on and off playing, I finally got an MRI that showed a piece of bone in my phemar in my right knee was starting to break off. I went and had surgery, rehabbed it and came back, but then I had to do the same procedure on my other knee, which was basically like a micro-fracture surgery where they basically drill up into the bone. It was very tough. Your ranking plummets and you don’t have any answers.”

But Russell has been essentially healthy ever since, with the brief exception of 2008 when he had shoulder problems. When he has been at his best, this sound strategist and solid ball striker has made his presence known and established a hard earned reputation as a formidable player who won’t beat himself. Perhaps the most shining moment of his long career was at Roland Garros in 2001, when he emerged from the edge of elimination in the qualifying, made it into the main draw, went to the round of 16, and nearly toppled one of the greatest clay court players of the modern era. Russell was up two sets to love with a match point in the third set against the renowned Guga Kuerten before bowing out gallantly in five enthralling sets.

“A lot of people don’t realize,” he says of that remarkable run in Paris, “that I was actually down match point in the first round of qualifying. But I got through that one. I always prided myself on having superior fitness compared to a lot of other players. I don’t think the players were as fit back then as they are now. So once I got into the tournament with three out of five set matches on clay I felt I had a brand new chance. I won my first round and then beat Sergi Bruguera [1993-94 French Open victor]. He won the first two sets, I took the third, and then he had to retire. Then I beat Xavier Malisse in five sets and I next played Kuerten. That tournament was the launching pad for me and it catapulted me into the top 100.”

Focusing more sharply on the Kuerten match, Russell says, “It was amazing to win those first two sets and get to match point at 5-3 in the third set. We had a 22 ball rally and he hit a ball that was half in and half out. Maybe it was fate or destiny or whatever you want to call it, but Kuerten won that third set in a tiebreaker and served incredibly in the fourth and fifth sets to beat me. The crowd was going crazy in that match. He didn’t want to lose to a qualifier in the fourth round of the French Open. Kuerten ended up winning the tournament. My biggest problem after that was I kind of thought of myself as a clay court specialist because of my good result at Roland Garros so I played too many clay court tournaments for a year or two, not realizing that as well as I did at the French Open I still probably excelled more on hard courts and faster courts.”

Another extraordinary experience for Russell at a major event occurred in 2011. He drew the defending champion Rafael Nadal in the opening round on the Centre Court of Wimbledon, and made an auspicious start before bowing in straight sets. As Russell recollects, “I have had some pretty tough draws at the Slams the last few years, but when the draw came out and I saw I was going to play Nadal, I thought it was really neat because I had played previously on the Centre Court at the three other Grand Slam events so it was nice for me to basically complete a Grand Slam of playing on all of the Centre Courts. I came out and played pretty well and got up 4-2 in the first set. I was going for my shots and being aggressive, but that was a little bit high risk. Nadal started serving better and changed his gameplan a bit. [Uncle] Toni kind of helps him out a little bit from the box. At the beginning Nadal was just trying to bash with me [from the baseline] but I like that a lot. But then he started mixing it up more. Once he gets his rhythm on his forehand and it starts clicking it is one of the deadliest shots in the game.”

Nadal upended Russell 6-4, 6-2, 6-2, but, as Russell recalls, “It was awesome. One of the highlights was when I dove for a volley and made it and then dove for another and missed—all in the same point! He dove for one also. For a first round Wimbledon match we had a lot of really good points and it was entertaining tennis. I thought we gave the fans good value for their money. A lot of the crowd gave us a standing ovation when we left the court.”

Outside of the four majors, the most memorable of all tournaments for Russell was his hometown event in Houston on clay in 2012. He achieved his first ever triumph over a top ten player when he toppled Mardy Fish, and also accounted for Ryan Harrison before losing in the penultimate round to clay court expert Juan Monaco in a tightly contested match.

“That was a big highlight for me,” says Russell. “To have my best tour event at home with my family and friends cheering me on was especially nice. You can’t ask for better than that. I only had one day of practice on clay before the tournament and had a tough first round match in the qualifying. Then each day I got a little bit better. It was fantastic. I had my wife there and my parents and the guys from where I train [at the Galleria Club] like Peter Lundgren and Nicklas Kroon helping me out. I played Daniel Gimeno-Traver in the first round [of the main draw] and he served for the match but I buckled down and was able to break his serve. I yelled out a big ‘Come On!’ and then I played really well to win the match as the crowd went crazy and got behind me. I played pretty much a flawless match against Mardy Fish and played really well against Harrison. We played on a humid day with a lot of long points and I was able to wear him down a bit. I put myself in a position to win against Monaco and was up a break in the third set against one of the best clay court players in the world. That is definitely one of the best memories I have had in my career.”

Russell is asked about players like himself who reside between No. 60 and No. 100 in the world. Is the difference between those players and those ranked above them a question of stroke production or is it predominately a matter of mentality?

Russell replies, “The four top guys—Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal—are just technically better than the other guys. Novak, Roger, Andy and Rafa are just bigger, stronger, and faster than the rest of the field and they have the experience and the resources as far as having a travelling team with them, and mentally they are superior as well. A lot of the difference between players ranked lower in the top 100 and the guys ranked 5 to 50 is mental, having the belief you can be successful, knowing what to do in a pressure situation, knowing what to do in your game. If you have a big forehand and it is 5-5, deuce in the final set, it is a matter of knowing you need to go for a huge forehand crosscourt. A guy ranked No. 15 or 20 will do that while a guy ranked 90 might get a little tight. You have to trust in your shots at those times and think: If I don’t make this shot, so what. I know I can make it nine out of ten times.”

Meanwhile, the challenges for a player like Russell are not simply navigating the big points in a match, but also finding a way to make it all work financially. Russell has made close to two million dollars over his career, and took home $246, 618 in official prize money on the ATP World Tour in 2012. At first glance, that sounds like a decent income, but expenditures for all of the players can be daunting. “It is a very expensive sport,” says Russell. “I would say on average annual expenses for a player are about $100,000 if you add up everything including travel and food and airplane fares and equipment accessories. If you are in the top 100 you can make a lot of money depending on what you are doing, which is good. But the sport of tennis needs a lot more money in it. Players in other sports who are in the top 100 make a lot more.”

When I asked if he believes the ATP is ready to pursue larger revenues for players ranked between 50 and 100 in the world, he answered, “They are trying to. The money is starting to increase at the Grand Slams, and Larry Ellison has put a lot of money into the Indian Wells event that hopefully will bleed into the other Masters 1000 tournaments. But tennis is one of the few sports—if not the only sport—where the percentages of what the players get compared to the tournament revenue is really small, especially at the Slams. You see the NHL lockout over 50-50. I don’t know the exact figures in tennis but I am pretty sure the players get less than 20 percent of total revenue, which is unacceptable.”

Russell elaborates, “The problem is being an individual sport and not having a true players union, we are not really getting a lot done about this. For myself, playing since 98, I have seen a lot different CEO’s come in from the ATP but radical change hasn’t happened. Australia made a good step in the right direction this year by increasing their prize money and agreeing to continue each year going forward. Hopefully we will see some changes from the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open with increasing prize money in the years going forward. It is a tough sport. You have to be a great athlete to play the sport of tennis.”

One of the most difficult tasks for a player is moving ably with the times as the game keeps evolving. It is ever changing and no one can afford to lag behind. Explains Russell, “I feel the game evolves every five years. I have changed equipment, changed positioning on the court, changed my mindset, and worked a lot on my serve. My volleys have improved and my slice has improved a lot. I used to stand basically six feet behind the baseline, spin the ball everywhere, and just run. That is not going to work anymore because everybody is stronger and fitter and serves so big. I had to learn to become a lot more aggressive and try to take time away from my opponents, kind of like Agassi.”

As we were nearing the conclusion of a terrific interview, I asked Michael Russell how long he believes he can stay at his level and what he still hopes to achieve in the game. He concluded, “I would like to break my career high ranking and ultimately be top 50. That would be incredible. If I could do that at 35 that would make it even more special. But I take it one year at a time. I sit down with my wife and my coaches and reevaluate how I am doing, how my body feels and if I am still enjoying it. At this point I am definitely going to play a full year in 2013 and then I will reevaluate at the end of the year and decide if I want to do it in 2014 and if I am ready for it. Right now I have all of the above: I still like it, I am enjoying it, I am playing well and I am healthy. I know I am in a good spot right now.”

Of this much I am certain: Russell did not get there by accident.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.