By Chris Starrs, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
With a 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory over Alex Kuznetsov Tuesday at the BB&T Atlanta Open, Michael Russell advanced to the tournament’s second round, where he’ll face Kevin Anderson at 4 p.m. Wednesday. Tuesday’s win also marked the second time Russell has defeated Kuznetsov on the ATP Tour and the ninth time he’s claimed victory over the Ukraine native in the last five years.
The 34-year-old Russell, who teamed with Xavier Malisse for a doubles victory early Tuesday morning, is the oldest player in the Atlanta Open and has been in the professional ranks since 1998. He’s currently ranked No. 98 in the world.
He’s enjoying one of his most notable years as a pro, recording victories over U.S. Olympians Donald Young and Ryan Harrison, and in April he reached his first ATP World Tour semifinal at the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship in his adopted hometown of Houston, where he defeated Mardy Fish, the two-time defending Atlanta Open titlist.
After his victory Tuesday evening, Russell talked about the year he’s having on tour, being the graybeard in Atlanta and his website.
Q: What’s it like being the oldest player in the tournament?
RUSSELL: I definitely have a lot of experience, and I know that going into tournaments and matches, so I try to use that to my advantage.
Q: Does it bother you when people bring up your age?
RUSSELL: Part of it is a compliment because I’ve been playing so long and I’ve been able to play so many years on tour and, knock on wood, withstand the rigors.
Q: How do you keep at it? It seems like there are times when you’re playing guys half your age.
RUSSELL: I try to stay in shape physically – I have to, really. My wife (Lilly) travels with me, and she does a lot of stuff behind the scenes. She makes sure I can be at 100 percent and compete every day.
Q: During the second set (Tuesday), it looked like your streak against Alex might come to an end. Any thoughts about playing him so much?
RUSSELL: Alex and I have played so many times. I know going in it’s going to be a battle, and it’s always close. It’s difficult to play the same guy so many times throughout the course of 10 years. Obviously, I’ve got a tough match (Wednesday), but it’s a new day, and I’m going to get some good sleep tonight, for sure.
Q: This has been a pretty interesting year for you, with victories over two players on the U.S. Olympic team. How does this year stack up with the rest of your career?
RUSSELL: It’s been so up and down. I started the year not great and dropped to 140, and my motivation and confidence were really down. And then I had a talk with my wife and with my coaches who are helping me back in Houston, Niclas Kroon and Peter Lundgren. And when I played in Houston, I did a little self-check, and it turned out to be one of my best weeks, reaching the semifinals, and it turned around my whole year. And I made some equipment changes, as well, and I feel I’m back on top of my game.
Q: How do you like this venue, Atlantic Station? Have you played in this kind of a set-up before?
RUSSELL: I don’t think I’ve played in a downtown-type setting like this before. It’s fantastic. It’s like a little city within a big city. To have the hotel, the courts, the players’ lounge and the restaurants within a five-minute walk is fantastic for the players. It’s real convenient, and it seems like a nice area. It seems real fan-friendly.
Q: Can you talk a little about your website, www.michael-russell.com? It’s interesting that there’s a lot of information on there but very little about tennis.
RUSSELL: I’d like to go into some kind of business when I’m finished playing. My brother basically does the endowment for the University of Virginia, and his wife teaches economics at the school, so I’m very interested in that, and I’d like to go into business if I don’t go into tennis. I’ll have to see what fork in the road I’ll take.