My Good Tennis Friend: Michael Russell
I hear it all the time from coaches that the player is too small or they do not possess a big enough weapon, so they have no chance of becoming a world class tennis player. I usually just nod my head in agreement and start naming names in my mind that would prove them wrong in an instant, but I am not the type of person to be confrontational. You cannot measure the size of the heart or the smarts that one player possesses.
My best friend on the ATP Tour was Michael Russell. This fellow Miami Hurricane held the number one ranking in the boys 16’s and 18’s in the United States. As a freshman at the University of Miami he played number one on the team, attained a top five national ranking, and was an All-American, which is the highest honor you can achieve in college tennis. After achieving all that success as an amateur, there is only one place to go to test your skills, and that is the ATP Tour.
Michael is 5’8” and does not possess a 140 mph serve. I am 5’10” and did not possess a 140 mph serve either. The question is how do you earn a living and compete against the best tennis players in the world if you are quite a bit smaller than your competition? You must train harder and smarter than your competition. You need to be able to out think your opponents. You need to have a bigger heart and more guts than your competition. You have to be fitter and be able to run all day and be extremely fast. You must also be able to train like a warrior, but never get injured, which is the key to being able to continue to progress through the rankings and to not take a couple of steps backwards, and lose ground to the thousands of tennis players trying to take your spot.
Michael and I both had numerous injuries that hampered our career on the ATP Tour. When you are smaller, your matches are much more grueling because you have to go out and earn the points. You do not have the option to just hit a big serve and win the point. You have to grind out matches, which takes a major toll on your body. Just ask Nadal.
Someone asked Michael what it is like to play tennis at the highest level, and his response was to go outside in the street and run short sprints and lateral movements as fast as you can plus swing a racket as fast as you can for 3-5 hours and let me know how that feels. Now do it every day.
We used to share hotel rooms and practice together when we could on the road. I knew Mike was someone I needed to get to know to enhance my knowledge of all aspects of the game whether it was tennis, strategy, nutrition, fitness, recovery, scheduling, and even what types of treatments to receive when I was injured. Michael did not miss one detail about his tennis career. He was very meticulous about what he did for his career on a daily basis.
You see, this is not a team sport and when you are injured, no one is there to help you find the right person to fix you, and there are many different people to see in the medical field to assist you with the healing process. It is your job to find the right person and every week you take off, the whole world is gaining precious ranking points to further their career. What you learn about life and being on the ATP Tour is not something you learn in school.
There is no professor that can teach you about how to survive week in and week out as a professional tennis player. There are matches that you must win to be able to stay afloat and have your career progress. It is no different than owning your own company. You are either making it happen or you are going to lose money and have to shut down your business. That is reality on the professional tennis tour. There is no school that can prepare you for that.
What most people do not realize is that the vast majority of professional tennis players are starving for success. If you are not consistently in the main draw of the grand slam tournaments, you are not making a living. There are 100 special tennis players on the planet that are earning a living. Michael was one of these special players for the majority of his career and he got there based on quickness, guts, and work ethic. At 5’8” he had wins over Tomas Berdych, Ivo Karlovic, Kevin Anderson, Marin Cilic, and Juan Martin Del Potro, who are all over 6’5”, plus he had many other great victories.
Over Michael’s seventeen year career, he played in 34 main draw grand slam singles tournaments, 115 ATP main draw singles tournaments, and he won 15 challenger titles which is the equivalent to triple A baseball. He just recently retired from the ATP Tour after making the third round of doubles at the 2015 US Open with his partner Donald Young. You see, people write off others because they do not fit the mold of the typical tennis player of 2015. Then you have the special athletes with heart and grit that love to prove the naysayers wrong. Congratulations Michael!