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Perseverance paying off for Michael Russell

8/22/2007 - Tennis

Playing golf for the first time in four years, Michael Russell is spraying his 3-wood all over the Horseshoe Bay Resort course just west of Austin, Texas. It's a best-ball competition with Andy Roddick -- who is finding most of the fairways with 300-yard drives -- and two buddies on a drizzly day in mid-July. Somehow, Russell is in position to win the match with a 5-foot putt for par on the 18th hole. But he misses, barely, to the left, and must pay off the lost wager. "I owe him an hour of my time. That was the deal," Russell explains. "If Andy wants a box of rubber bands, I'll have to drive to Staples and get it."

You might not have heard of Michael Russell, Andy Roddick's temporary errand boy, but his meandering 10-year journey through the world of professional tennis has been marked by a string of bullet-point highs unimaginable to most of us.

• Practicing with in-his-prime, 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras as a 17-year-old at the Saddlebrook Tennis Academy in Florida.

• Holding match point against three-time (and eventual) champion Gustavo Kuerten in the fourth round of the 2001 French Open.

• Leading Lleyton Hewitt, two sets to love, on center court in the first round of the 2007 Australian Open.

• Hitting balls with the U.S. Davis Cup team in the Czech Republic in February.

• Facing No. 1-ranked Roger Federer three months later in the first round of the French Open.

• Flying with Andy Roddick in a private jet to a summer tournament in Indianapolis.

All of this, leavened by a frustrating series of less-than-stellar results and a run of sometimes-unfathomable bad fortune.

• Serving to Andre Agassi during a 1997 practice session in North Carolina and suffering a spiral fracture of the humerus bone in his right arm.

• Undergoing three knee surgeries in 2003 and 2004 to resolve a long-undiagnosed condition in which bone and cartilage separated from the rest of the knee.

• Tearing a hamstring that aborted a comeback in 2005.

• Enduring 10 days of injections to relieve blood clots in both lungs after the 2006 Australian Open.

• Struggling to the top of the tennis ladder, and losing 57 of 81 ATP career matches.


Russell's decade-long career is defined by this pitched peaks-and-valleys dichotomy. The 29-year-old has lived "the life" so many envy -- a travel-the-world dash with the jet-set crowd on the pro tennis tour. Yet in 10 years as a professional, he has gone five entire seasons without a single ATP-level match victory. In February 2004, the lowest point, Russell's ATP ranking was tied for 1,339th.

He has rallied tenaciously, and today he finds himself ranked 67th. That's down from last week's career-best 60th, but it's still a relatively lofty position that allows him automatic entry into the tournaments for which he once struggled to qualify.

At this week's Pilot Pen Tournament in New Haven, Conn., compelling stories are everywhere: 18-year-old American Donald Young won his first ATP match after going 0-for-11; Nikolay Davydenko, dogged by a betting scandal, is the top seed; 6-foot-9 John Isner and his big serve have created a serious buzz.

But when Russell won his ninth ATP match of the year Sunday afternoon (his best total ever), there were no headlines, not even a paragraph in the local newspapers. That's too bad. For Michael Russell is professional tennis. The Federers and Roddicks win the trophies and receive most of the attention, but their successes would not be possible without players like Russell.

So when the U.S. Open begins to unwind next week in Flushing, N.Y., take a moment to watch Russell play. And try to savor and appreciate the remarkable backstory of this seemingly unremarkable player.

In 10 years, Russell has won roughly $750,000 in official prize money. But when the hundreds of airfares, the unreimbursed hotel bills, a multitude of meals, rental cars, taxes and, yes, dozens of pairs of Adidas shoes -- the discontinued Climate Cool Ultimate 3 -- that cost him $50 a pop with a discount from Tennis Warehouse … When all of that is factored in, 750 grand doesn't go very far.

In fact, it's an astonishing thought: In terms of net income, a minimum-wage worker at McDonald's did better financially than Russell did during the nine years before 2007.

Then again, a burger flipper probably hasn't ever traded shots with Sampras, Agassi, Federer or Hewitt.

"That [burger-flipping] guy has probably saved more than me," Russell said on Monday in New Haven, his sun-scorched eyebrows rising. "That's not good.

"It's been frustrating. I'm very competitive, almost to the point of being obsessive-compulsive. For the last eight weeks, it seems like every guy I've played has been [ranked in the] top 20. You have to find ways to cope, mentally. I'll tell you, it's not easy."

Russell, who stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 160 pounds, is one of the smallest players in the professional game. His lack of size, power and natural ability is offset by startling acceleration, precise footwork and, most important, a voracious work ethic.

"He is a tremendous overachiever," said recently retired Todd Martin, who won both matches against Russell. "To lose once a week -- every week -- to be able to adopt that personality and perspective without becoming cynical, without feeling sorry for yourself ... well, it's very admirable."

Russell's father, too, not surprisingly, is an unabashed fan.

"He reminds me of Don Quixote … [tilting] at those windmills," said George Russell. "For every success, I can tell you, there's been hours on the couch with ice bags on his knees. After the third knee operation, most people would have thrown up their hands and said, 'I'm star-crossed, I can't do it.' But Michael has persevered. That's why he's our hero."

"Most people don't see my playing out here as a rational decision," Russell said. "But I just can't see myself in a working environment like everybody else. Not yet, anyway."

Working harder, out of necessity
Snapping Wrigley's Doublemint so hard you can see his jaw muscles flex, George Russell feeds balls -- he's ripping shots as hard as he can -- to his son across the net on Court Philippe Chatrier. This has been their teacher-student routine for more than two decades. But in some ways, this Paris scene represents the triumphant arc of their relationship. In two days, Michael will face No. 1-ranked Roger Federer on this blood-red center-court in the first round of the 2007 French Open. "Truthfully," Michael says, "I think I got more of a kick out of it, watching him watch me, than he did. It was something I'll never forget."

Growing up in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, Russell had little chance of not getting sucked into the vortex of tennis. His father was a member of the University of Michigan's Big Ten Conference championship team in 1965 and a successful club professional. His mother, Carole, played club tennis at Michigan and, together with George, won a handful of state titles coaching at Detroit Country Day School.

At age 5, following his brother David -- a successful junior -- Michael spent many hours banging balls with a wooden Dunlop racket against the garage door. By the age of 14, he was already ranked among the nation's top 30 juniors. Two years later, he was the No. 1-ranked junior, winning the hard court national in Kalamazoo, Mich., and playing around the world in the junior Grand Slams. Midway through his senior year of high school, Russell enrolled at Saddlebrook Tennis Academy, where Sampras, Jennifer Capriati and Jim Courier were regulars. He graduated as valedictorian in the spring of 1995.

But a loss to Jared Palmer in his first professional event -- a Challenger tournament in Indian Wells -- told him he wasn't ready to turn pro. Russell played No. 1 singles at the University of Miami, won the Rolex national indoor tournament and finished the year as the No. 1-ranked freshman and No. 7 among collegiate players.

A week before he was set to turn professional in 1997, he broke his arm and spent the next five months rehabbing back home in Michigan, wired to electronic stimulus machines and beginning a long and fruitful relationship with ice. In 1998, Russell played 30 matches in 12 Futures events, the Double-A minor leagues of tennis. He also played 15 matches in eight Challenger events, the equivalent of Triple-A.

"I didn't have a game plan then," Russell said. "I just ran down a lot of balls. I had no court sense, no idea of how to set up a point. I never really attacked my opponent. To get in the top 100, I needed to beef up my game."

That didn't happen until the summer of 2001. Beginning with Wimbledon in 2000, Russell qualified for majors four times in a row to become the first man in the Open era (since 1968) to qualify his way into four consecutive Grand Slam main draws. The fourth major, the 2001 French Open, was the charm.

He'd lost three straight times in the first round of majors, but at Roland Garros that year Russell defeated Nicolas Mahut, two-time champion Sergi Bruguera and Xavier Malisse in a five-set, third-round match. Kuerten, the world's No. 1-ranked player and defending French Open champion, was Russell's opponent in the fourth round. Russell won the first two sets and held a match point serving at 5-3 in the third. The Brazilian prevailed in a 26-stroke rally, hitting a forehand winner set up by a backhand that took Russell off the court and, somehow, went on to win the 205-minute match and, eventually, his third French Open title.

The defeat crushed Russell. But in the seemingly seamless dark days that followed, the loss to Kuerten grew to sustain him.

"He was so close," said his brother, David. "He was playing a top player and holding his own. I think that's where he started to believe that it was all worth it, just to keep grinding it out."

Early in his career, Russell enjoyed relatively good health. But in 2002, his right knee began to bother him, and he sought a doctor's advice. Nearly two years, four more doctors and one exploratory surgery later, a Jacksonville orthopedic surgeon finally made the correct diagnosis: It was osteochondritis, a genetic disorder usually found in 16-year-olds in which bone and cartilage separates from the rest of the knee. Dr. Steven Lancaster performed surgery on the right knee as well as the left one, which had also started to deteriorate.

After he competed in an Auckland, New Zealand, tournament in January 2003, Russell went more than three years without playing an ATP event. He lived with his parents in Ponte Vedra, Fla., and generally scuffled, appearing in the events that would have him. He spent a lot of time on his favorite tennis Web site: stevegtennis.com. Russell was playing in the River Oaks tournament in Houston in April 2004 when he met his soon-to-be wife, Liliana Justo, at the restaurant she manages, Vito's. The marriage is set for Nov. 10, after the season ends, at the Houston Hilton Galleria. With financial support from his parents and Justo, who clears $80,000 at the restaurant, Russell worked himself back into competitive condition.

Realistically, a player needs to be ranked inside the top 100 to make a decent living. The exceptions are players ranked first or second in their country, Davis Cup stars who have access to national funding, private sponsorships and endorsements. Consider the amenities of an ATP event such as the Pilot Pen in New Haven. Russell was met at the airport by a driver in a Mercedes-Benz and taken to a high-end downtown hotel, paid for by the tournament. He received a gift bag that included a pricey razor, Pilot Pens and a mayor's passport, enabling him to eat free at 25 of the city's finest restaurants. Pilot Pen players, who have access to a high-quality cafeteria on the tournament grounds, also receive the services of two trainers and two masseuses and receive two cans of balls. The winner of five matches will receive $84,000 and 200 rankings points.

Contrast that with Russell's experience last year at the Bronx Challenger, where he won with five match victories, receiving $7,200 and 50 points. Russell took a $60 taxi from JFK Airport to the New Yorker, a modest $160-per-night hotel he paid for with his own money. In the mornings, he bought a deli turkey-and-ham sandwich and a bunch of bananas -- his food for the day -- and boarded the bus to the site. The Challenger staff consisted of one trainer (who handled massages), and players received one can of balls each. After the bus ride home, Russell was on his own in Manhattan for dinner.

Top 10 players, of course, live in a different area code. They fly in private jets and commonly command six-figure appearance fees in addition to a full-time car service, hotel suites for themselves and their full-time entourage, which usually includes companions, a coach, a personal trainer and a racket stringer.

Russell usually travels alone, but still runs up annual expenses -- largely coach airfare -- in excess of $80,000. Without help from his parents or fiancée, he would have launched another career, probably in business, long ago.

In June 2005, working with a rare thrust of momentum, he had his ranking up to No. 264 ... until he tore his right hamstring playing a Challenger in Cuenca, Ecuador. Faced with mounting evidence that his body wasn't built for the rigors of the professional game, Russell started taking courses through the Cal-Berkeley extension program via the Internet. Between physical therapy sessions, he wrestled with macroeconomics and Spanish.

"The rest of us were like, 'Geez, is this really going to work out for him? Should he just move on?'" said his brother, David. "But he kept on rehabbing, trying to get healthy. He thought about stopping, yes. But because of the nature of the injuries, we never knew how long he'd be out."

Ivo Karlovic on Court 6 at Wimbledon's Orangi Park. The 6-foot-10 Croatian hammers serves so hard they bounce off the grass and sail over Russell's head. He's probably hit more than a million balls in his life, but this last one sounds different to Russell. When he retrieves it, sure enough, there's a slice in the ball the length of a quarter. "Hey, Ivo," Russell says, holding it aloft, "you broke this one."

After he lost in the last round of qualifying at the 2006 Australian Open, Russell's prospects were bleak. Flying home, they got worse. He developed blood clots in both lungs.

"Scary at first, very scary," Russell said. "But, really, it wasn't that bad in the scheme of things."

Ten days of injections of the blood thinners Coumadin and Lovenox solved the latest physical problem. But the competition problem? The medicine couldn't help him with that. Of the 52 official matches Russell played from Jan. 2 to Nov. 27 last year, only two were ATP-level matches.

He opened 2007 with another Challenger victory, in Noumea, New Caledonia, an island between Australia and Fiji. Two weeks later, drawing national hero Hewitt in the first round of the Australian Open, Russell went through 13 shirts in an exhausting five-set match in which he had been up two sets to love. He lost, but once again, he had hung with a former No. 1 player.

A week later, playing a Challenger in Waikoloa, Hawaii, Russell defeated five lesser players, all in straight sets. His ranking, not surprisingly, soared into the top 100 for the first time in six years. He had now won three of his last four events, all Challengers played on islands.

Michael, David said, laughing, "is the Roger Federer of island Challengers."

Since the beginning of his far-flung career, Russell's mother, Carole, has observed a ritual: For every tournament her son plays, she presses a pushpin into a big world map on the wall in her workout room in Ponte Vedra. For every Paris (blue) and London (green), there is also a Casablanca, Morocco (red); a Joplin, Mo. (white); or an Estoril, Portugal (yellow).

The 2007 season, finally, finds the world traveler relatively happy and healthy, although back spasms have been a recurring problem as the summer has lengthened. In March, Pacific Life Open officials gave him a precious wild card. Rested because he didn't have to qualify, Russell handled Frenchman Marc Gicquel 6-3, 7-5 in the first round. He stunned Tomas Berdych -- ranked No. 12 in the world -- in the second round, 7-6 (2), 6-4. Guillermo Garcia Lopez went quietly in the third, 6-1, 7-5. Then Russell played well against Juan Ignacio Chela, ranked No. 31, but lost his fourth-round match 6-4, 6-4.

In a single week, he beat three players ranked in the top 70 and earned 75 rankings points, the second-highest total in his career after the 165 he received for winning three matches at the 2001 French Open.

But after he won a first-round match in Austria, Russell went nine weeks without a victory in an ATP event.

That doesn't mean he didn't have some successes. In mid-July, he was asked to be a last-minute replacement for Sampras in the Kennedy Funding Invitational in New York. He defeated Bruno Echagaray (ranked No. 176) in the first round, Paul Goldstein in the second and, in the final, Somdev Devvarman, a junior from Virginia and the 2007 NCAA singles champion. For this, he received $40,000.

"Most dream to win," brother David said. "He dreams to compete. He didn't allow adversity to change his mind."

Clichés are, by nature, tired and hackneyed. But in the end, as often as not, they are true. Michael Russell is very much the overnight sensation, 20 years in the making.

"I'm 29, sure. But this is my first full year since 2002," Russell said. "It's easy to dwell on the negative, but I just appreciate the opportunity to be here. I always believed I could be one of the best 50 players on the planet. I still do."

"He exceeded all expectations -- but not his," David said. "He still hasn't reached his expectations. I don't know if he ever will."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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