Tennis Journeyman Michael Russell's Long Career Outside the Elite
A puddle of sweat forms on the hotel carpet when Michael Russell pulls off his tennis shoes. He’s just finished a practice session in Atlanta’s midday heat and is rummaging through his suitcase looking for a bottle of electrolyte pills. Russell’s in town for the BB&T Atlanta Open, a lower-tier event on the ATP World Tour. It’s his third stop since losing in the first round at Wimbledon in June. Russell, 35, has been chasing prize money and rankings points around the globe since he was 20. Barring injury, he’ll be at the US Open in New York on Aug. 26, playing under the same lights as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray. Barring a miracle, he will lose long before the final.
“I still really enjoy it,” Russell says of living out of a suitcase and taking the court against younger players week after week. “It has that gladiator aspect where you can’t really blame anybody but yourself.” He stretches as he talks, his foot propped on a towel on the back of the couch. “I figure as long as I’m healthy, and I’m still ranked in the top 100, I might as well keep playing.”
Judged against the universe of tennis players, Russell is supremely able. His father played for the University of Michigan, his older brother for Princeton. He arrived at the University of Miami in 1996 as the top-ranked junior player in the U.S. and turned pro two years later. In 2001 he came within a stroke of the French Open quarterfinals. At 5-foot-8, he’s a midget among the lean giants who dominate tennis, but he’s powerful and quick. He can chase down and return balls only a few dozen other humans can.
Most of them, however, are also on the tour, where Russell has a lifetime record of 71 wins and 134 losses and has never risen above 60 in the rankings. “The sport is basically how well you can cope with losing,” Russell says. “You could be ranked 35 in the world and not have a winning record. So it’s very difficult.” Nadal, the leading money winner on the tour, has made $6.3 million in prize money this year; Russell’s earned $220,000. More than 16 million TV viewers watched Murray defeat Djokovic in last year’s US Open final; most of Russell’s matches aren’t televised. Still, the show can’t go on without players like Russell. “Our tour is 60-plus tournaments over the course of at least 10 months a year,” says Flip Galloway, chief financial officer of the ATP. “All of those events can’t operate on just a few top players.”
Four elite rivals—Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray—have helped tennis expand its global popularity over the past decade. This year, after sustained pressure from players, the four Grand Slam events have raised prize purses by 15 percent to 40 percent. Much of that new money goes to players who lose in the early rounds. For Russell, that means if he can stay in the top 100—the approximate cutoff to qualify—he can pick up more than $100,000 a year from Grand Slam tournaments alone.
Russell’s Atlanta stay began with a Saturday morning flight from Houston, where he and his wife, Lilly, live between tournaments. She’s his only travel companion on tour—no coaches, trainers, chefs, or racket stringers. “She helps me so much,” Russell says. “She’ll stretch me. She’ll run errands. She’ll go get the rackets, almost basically what coaches do.” Before she joined him on the tour three years ago, Lilly managed a restaurant in Houston where she was making almost $100,000. “I feel guilty if I go sightseeing,” she says, standing in the shade of a parking garage a few yards from the practice court where Russell trades shots with that day’s hitting partner, 185th-ranked Brian Baker. “He’s working, and here I am shopping?” Russell’s days are a series of these “hits,” followed by stretching, massages, meals, and rest. His job, especially at this stage in his career, is often about what he doesn’t do.
Russell doesn’t drink alcohol, except for the occasional glass of wine in the off-season. Juice and soda are also off-limits. He doesn’t eat fast or fried food, partly because of trouble with ulcers. Pasta’s a rarity. He sleeps close to 10 hours most nights and rarely exerts himself in any way that won’t help improve his tennis game. “You can’t go walk around the mall because you don’t want time in the sun,” he says. To fill the downtime, he watches movies. Braveheart and Zoolander are favorites. “Lilly gets mad at me. I can watch the same movies over and over again.”
Life on the tour isn’t all sacrifice. “I’ve been to nightclubs in Paris and London where I never would have gotten in if I wasn’t playing in the French Open or Wimbledon,” Russell says of the days before he married Lilly in 2007. Last December, Richard Branson invited the couple to his private island in the Caribbean for the Necker Cup, a five-day retreat where wealthy amateurs pay to play with pros such as Russell, Djokovic, and Tommy Haas. (Haas, ranked 13th, is the only player in the top 100 older than Russell.) “It was awesome,” says Lilly. “The only thing is it kind of ruins everything else for you afterwards.”
Atlanta’s a small stop on the tour. Players stay at the Twelve Hotel, a short walk through an outdoor mall from stadium court—a temporary 3,728-seat venue. The elite men skip the tournament. The winner pockets $98,700 and 250 rankings points. (Murray earned $2.4 million and 2,000 points for his Wimbledon victory this year.)
Even here, Russell is an underdog. His first-round match on Tuesday is against Mardy Fish, who was the top-ranked U.S. player before a heart condition sidelined him last year. Both get $5,600 for qualifying. Another $3,860 goes to the winner of the match, although Russell prefers not to think about it. “After the tournament I go back and I look. I make sure it’s wired in the correct amount,” he says, “but you don’t want to think about that when it’s second serve, four-all in the third set.”
On top of the prize money, Russell brings in about $15,000 a year from sponsors. (Federer gets a reported $13 million a year from Nike alone.) Russell has deals with Asics, French racket maker Babolat, online retailer Tennis Express, and Synflex, a company that makes a glucosamine supplement he uses to relieve joint pain. He doesn’t have an agent. If he likes a product, he calls the maker to ask about a deal. Between prize money, sponsorships, and appearance fees at exhibitions, Russell says he earns $300,000 in a good year. He spends about $75,000 of that on airline seats.
In 15 years on the tour, Russell has won $2,062,980 in prize money. The flow has not been even. Knee surgeries in 2003 and 2004 cost him a season and a half and forced him to play Challenger tournaments—the tennis equivalent of the minor leagues—to rebuild his ranking and get back on the ATP tour. After climbing to No. 60, he tore a rotator cuff in February 2008 and had to start from the bottom again. “There have been a few times when I’ve thought about stopping,” he says. “I’m comfortable with myself knowing that if I’m not winning matches, I’m not beating guys in the top 100, I need to walk away from the sport.”
To help prepare for that moment, Russell completed an online undergraduate degree in business administration from the University of Phoenix in 2012. The ATP and the university covered the cost. For three years while he toured, Russell spent nights and weekends on homework in statistics, economics, and management. “In Australia one year,” he says, “I lost to [Juan Martín] del Potro in four sets, the night match, and then I had to finish a three-hour math exam.” The material, he says, was mostly beside the point. He was proving he had the discipline to do it.
For now, Russell is still running for drop shots. He takes stadium court in a sleeveless red Asics top for the match with Fish. As the warm-up begins, he bounces on the balls of his feet like a boxer. The stands are about a quarter full, and a few drops of rain are falling. Lilly is there, first row, in a short black dress and aviator sunglasses, a glass of white wine in hand.
Fish dominates early, and the crowd is clearly pulling for him. After lost points, Russell talks to his racket strings. He drops the first set 6-4. Then his scrambling begins to work. He breaks Fish in the second set before the rain picks up and the umpire stops play.
Two hours later, when the match resumes, all but the first two rows are empty. It’s a long way from Paris, London, or New York. Fish and Russell play for another 10 minutes before the rain comes back. Russell has to wait another day to finish Fish 4-6, 6-2, 7-5. In the next round, an ulcer flare-up forces him to retire in the third set against Santiago Giraldo of Colombia. He leaves Atlanta with $9,460 and a small confidence boost. “I played really well against Mardy,” he says a couple weeks later on the phone from Cincinnati. “I’m looking forward to going to New York.”
Russell knows he’ll never kiss the US Open’s Tiffany silver trophy at Arthur Ashe Stadium. He has more modest goals for his career: to make $2 million in prize money, a mark he passed at Wimbledon this year, and to crack the top 50. He currently sits at 93. How long will he keep trying? “He’s 53 years old and he’s ranked 54,” Russell says in a mock announcer’s voice. Realistically, he hopes to play through next year’s US Open. “That’s 36 years old, 16 years on tour,” he says. “I think that’s a pretty good number.”