At 32, American Michael Russell was the oldest player competing at the recent Rogers Cup tennis tournament at Toronto’s Rexall Centre.
On the surface, one might think he would have been an easy target for the younger athletes in the draw, but as young Canadians Philip Bester and Steven Diez learned, Russell could not be overlooked.
Russell gave 19-year-old Diez a crash course in tennis strategy in his opening qualifying round match. After dropping the first set 6-2 to to the up-and-coming Canadian, Russell exposed Diez’s weak forehands by consistently returning shots to the forehand side, crushing Diez 6-3, 6-1 in the final two sets in the humid 35-degree heat that wore out the younger player.
The next day, Russell made quick work of highly touted 22-year-old Philip Bester of Vancouver on another hot and humid day, ripping him apart with guile and hustle 6-2, 6-2.
“I feel good that I can still beat players more than 10 years younger than me,” Russell said. Known as “Iron Mike” and “Muscles Russell” by his competitors, Russell is a fitness fanatic who made his younger Canadian opponents look like the seniors on the court.
“I saw what fitness did for Andre Agassi in his last years in tennis, so I know that I would not be competing if not for my daily workouts,” said Russell, who was wearing a sleeveless shirt that exposed rippling muscles.
In his final match in the main draw against fellow American Sam Querrey, Russell’s persistence and hustle broke Querrey immediately to build on a 3-0 lead and win the first set 6-3.
The 6-6 Querrey, who towers over the 5-8 Russell, finally made his big serve a weapon after the first set, firing aces at will and improving his groundstrokes to eliminate Russell in the final two sets 6-1, 6-4.
“Michael was as tough as I expected. He had some huge serves, ripping the ball from both sides really fast and it took me a while to get going. The last few years, Michael has been playing some of his best tennis. He is an inspiration to a lot of guys, especially if you’re 27, maybe not doing well. Michael is the example that you can have your best years in tennis after 30,” said Querrey following his victory.
Having turned pro in 1998, Russell’s tenure has spanned the peak years of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. His name isn’t widely known because he struggled with knee injuries and played almost exclusively on the challenger circuit – the minor league of tennis – for most of his pro career.
“In my first six or seven years, I struggled more and did not have the same mental and physical fortitude that I have now. Since I have broken into the top 100 in 2007, I feel better, stronger and have as much desire to compete as I ever had,” said Russell.
Russell is currently ranked 82nd in the world and is also the top-ranked Jewish player on the pro circuit. Born in Detroit, Russell learned tennis from his father George, a former University of Michigan tennis star. Like his father, he also excelled in collegiate tennis, winning NCAA rookie of the year honours in 1997 while playing for the University of Miami.
“I was raised, as are most Jewish people, not to forego a university education. I am happy I competed for University of Miami and had a tennis scholarship. I have absolutely no regrets for anything over my career, and hope to still have a few more years left to compete,” Russell said. Adding to his stability was marrying his wife, Lily, in 2007 and residing in Houston, Texas.
Russell’s 13 years on the pro tennis circuit are longer than most players and even more remarkable given the depth of competition. His highest ranking was 65th in 2007, playing mostly on the major tennis circuit over the last three years. His best result in 2010 was a quarter-final finish in July at the Atlanta Tennis Championships.