At 36, American Michael Russell was the oldest player competing at the recent Rogers Cup tennis tournament held at the Rexall Centre in Toronto. On the surface, one may think that Russell would be an easy victory for the younger athletes in the draw.
But as three of his younger opponents learned, Russell could not be overlooked. Russell gave 26-year-old Canadian Philip Bester a crash course in playing winning tennis in his opening qualifying round match. Russell easily won in a 6-1,6-0 rout with his quick play at net and aggressive forehands.
The next day, Russell had more of a nail biter against Fabrice Martin, 27, of France. Russell broke serve in game one to win the first set 6-4. Martin then rebounded with aggressive forehands to win the second set 6-2.
The third set was a 4-4 tie, until Russell broke serve with a drop shot at net that Martin could not return to take a 5-4 lead, before serving out his victory to earn his 6-4,2-6, 6-4 victory.
In the main draw, Russell won easily against 32-year-old Nicolas Mahut of France 6-3, 6-3.
His streak ended against fifth seed Spaniard David Ferrer, who defeated Russell 6-4, 2-6, 6-1 in the second round of the tournament.
“I feel good that I can still beat players who are up to 10 years younger than me,” said the 143rd-ranked Russell following his matches. Russell’s second round finish at the Rogers Cup will return him back into the top 100 rankings.
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.”
Russell’s wife Lily (whom he married in 2007) is a fitness competitor and works closely with her husband to keep him as fit as he needs to be on the tennis court.
“Michael is as tough and as fit as anyone on the tennis circuit. What he has done on the tennis court is a testimony to all the hard work needed to have a long career in tennis”, said Ferrer after the match.
Having turned pro in 1998, Russell’s tenure has spanned the peak years of Agassi and Pete Sampras to Roger Federer. His name is not widely known because Russell struggled with knee injuries and played most of his career on the minor league challenger circuit.
Russell’s highest ranking was #60 in August of 2007. His second round finish at the Rogers Cup will raise his current ranking to #98. He is the second highest ranked Jewish player on the circuit, behind Dudi Sela of Israel (ranked 82nd).
Born in Detroit, Russell learned tennis from his father George, a former University of Michigan tennis star. Like his father, Russell also excelled in collegiate tennis, winning NCAA rookie of the year honours in 1997 playing for University of Miami. Russell is one of the few players on the pro tennis circuit to hold a university degree.
“I was raised, as are most Jews, not to bypass a university education. I am happy about playing collegiate tennis and have absolutely no regrets for anything over my career and hope to still have a few more years left to compete,” added Russell, who is in his 15th year of competition on the men’s pro tennis circuit.
When the Association of Tennis Professionals announced during the Rogers Cup that the new Israel Open men’s tennis tournament, (Sept.9-15), had to be cancelled because of the conflict in the Gaza region, Russell was disappointed as he entered the Israel Open.
“I was really looking forward to competing in Israel. It would have been a great tournament for the Israeli players, such as Dudi Sela, to shine in their home country,” said Russell.
One other Jewish player, 16-year-old David Volfson of Thornhill, Ont., competed at the Rogers Cup in qualifying in front of his family and friends. He was routed 6-0, 6-0 by Australian player Thanasi Kokkinakis in his first professional tournament.
“I was nervous and did not play as well as I would have liked. Tennis Canada gave me a wild card only the night before the match, so I could have been better prepared”, said Volfson.
Ranked second among Canada’s top junior players, Volfson projects that he will bypass using a tennis scholarship to university, intending to turn pro.
“I hope to play on the challenger circuit in 2015 and if I reach a rank of #500, I will meet my goals. I am serious about being the best tennis player I can be so I decided to turn pro to further my career in tennis”, said Volfson.
Volfson was the national Canadian 14 and under champion at age 12 in 2010, and was selected to join the Tennis Canada elite tennis training program at Rexall Centre, working with coach Bob Brett, who trained tennis stars Boris Becker and Marin Cilic. Volfson also won the bronze medal for his semifinal finish at the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Volfson is a Grade 11 student at Leo Baeck Day School, and he hopes to become the next great Canadian tennis star, following the success of Canada’s top tennis player, Milos Raonic.