Michael Russell, in part two of our interview, talks about his preparations, his gear, and how his sense of feel has evolved. (For part one, on Russell’s mental and physical training, click here.)
Justin diFeliciantonio: So you talked about how, at night, you massage and do visualization exercises. Start from the beginning. What’s the ideal day of training like?
Michael Russell: An ideal day, minimum nine hours of sleep. Which is a lot, but I think it’s necessary. I try to go to bed before midnight if I can. Wake up, breakfast, relax for about an hour and a half. Before practice, I’ll spend about 20 minutes just warming up, which consists of running, drills, side-stepping, court-like movements, maybe some band exercises for the shoulder. Then practice for two hours. Stretch 20 minutes. Come home. Ice 20 minutes. Eat lunch. Rest for about an hour and a half. Then warm up for 20 minutes. Go to the gym. Work out for about an hour, hour and a half. Stretch 20 minutes. Ice 20 minutes. Then rest for maybe an hour, have dinner. And then do an hour with the massage stuff. Finally watch TV if I can for an hour. And sleep.
JD: That must take discipline.
MR: Yeah, there’s not much free time. The free time is in pockets. You have an hour here, or an hour there. There’s not a big gap where you can go out and do other stuff. You’ve always got to make sure that you’re physically 100 percent, that you’re stretched out and your body’s limber. It’s a lot of sacrifices for myself, as well as the people around me. Everything is always year-round tennis.
JD: I assume your training has gotten a lot more sophisticated since you first started?
MR: Definitely. Before, when I was young, it was kind of reckless. I would just do as much as I could, whenever I could. So I used to play four hours of tennis a day, and do two and a half hours of fitness. But at 18 to 22 years old, I didn’t have to spend as much time stretching, icing, massaging, because my body just bounced back so quickly. Now, I’ve cut back on the practice. My fitness is a lot smarter. I’ve definitely tailored it to my body and what works for me, and I spend a lot more time massaging, icing, stretching, and rehabbing.
JD: Let’s talk about your racquets and string. What are you currently playing with?
MR: That’s changed a lot over the years, too. When I first started, I used the Head Prestige Classic. 93 square inch head size. Normal length racquet. 18 x 20 string pattern. And I made the fourth round of the French Open with that, in 2001. Right now, I use a Babolat Pure Drive. Which is 100 sq. in. 27.5 inches long. 16 x 19 string pattern. And it’s more head heavy. It’s a completely different construction, at the opposite end of the spectrum than the Head. I also string with Luxilon string, which is a polyester. Actually, I think I was one of the first Americans to use Luxilon.
JD: Really? What drew you to it?
MR: Yeah, that was back in 2000. I was in Europe, and was using a different polyester string. One of the guys, a European player, had the Alu Power in his racquet. And he said, “It’s really good. I think it’s a little bit better than what you have.” So I got a set from him, threw it in the racquet, and was like whooaa, this is pretty cool. I was getting incredible spin compared to what I had in my racquet at the time. So I called up the company and asked to be sponsored.
JD: Isn’t that about when Gustavo Kuerten started using it? Like in ’99?
MR: I was going to say. Because ’01, that’s when I lost to Guga in the fourth round of the French. We both had it.
JD: But before you were using another polyester string?
MR: Yes, but not Luxilon. I mean, just the combination of the fibers that Luxilon uses. I don’t know what it is exactly. But the way that it pockets the ball, and the spin that comes off it as well, it gives you the ability to swing as hard as you can.
JD: What kind of handle do you use? Is it a Babolat handle, or custom?
MR: It’s basically a 3/8ths Babolat-shaped handle, because I’ve used a Babolat for so long. It’s pretty straightforward. But I do build up the butt cap a little bit with athletic tape. Each one of my racquets is measured—so the grips are all the same size, the butt caps are all the same size. When I build up the tape, they all measure the same as well.
JD: And that’s something you do yourself?
MR: Yeah, I do the athletic tape myself. It’s kind of like a hockey stick, you know, kind of like that nub on the bottom. I hold the racquet quite low on the handle, and I pull against it on my serve and my forehand. If I didn’t have the athletic tape, then my racquet would probably go flying half the time. Because I also sweat, like, ridiculous. [Laughing]
JD: What about your racquets’ specification?
MR: I’ve changed it over the years. Before, when I first started in ’98 to 2004, I used a heavy racquet, but it was head light. You know, most of the weight was in the handle. On a centimeters scale, it was probably 31.3cm, balance point. Which is quite head light. And the racquet was about 360, 365 grams. But over the years, with the way tennis has progressed—obviously hitting, the balls are heavier, the courts are slower—I’ve gone to having most of the weight in the head, and not so much weight in the handle. So now my balance point is 32.5cm. And my weight is much less, around 345 grams.
JD: So you’re adding weight to the stock frame?
MR: Yes, I add weight to the stock frame just to beef up the swingweight a little bit. Because the racquets that come from the factory, they’re a little bit lighter. And when I put lead tape on the racquet, that changes the balance a little bit.
JD: Going from the Head Prestige to your Babolat Pure Drive, that’s a pretty big shift. Does the racquet you’re playing now feel as good as what you started with? Or is it a matter of having to accept a new feel just to compete?
MR: No. The only problem is when a company discontinues a model. And then I run out of racquets. About two years ago, when Babolat came out with the previous Pure Drive model, the royal blue one, I didn’t like it. So I was searching to find another racquet, something that’ll give me the same feel of what I’ve had and what I’m used to. And that’s difficult. It causes problems.
JD: What was the problem with the change in the Babolat model? Even with the same weight and balance?
MR: Yeah, I don’t know. It just felt unsolid. Sometimes I’m very peculiar. It felt like there was a lot more shock coming through. But they’ve since come up with the 2012 model, which I like a lot. And now I’m happy again. [Laughing.]
JD: How do you think your perception of feel has evolved? Liked if you played with the Head Prestige that started on tour with, would it still feel good to you?
MR: I mean, it still feels good. But I don’t have the same conditions. Nowadays, the balls are much heavier, the courts are much slower. So it’s like, if I took that same fast court, faster ball that we used to use, like in 2000, it probably would still feel good.
JD: It’s the context, you’re saying.
MR: Exactly. The courts being slower, the balls being heavier—that’s why I’m gravitating toward a racquet that’s more powerful. Like if I had the Babolat back in 2000, it’d probably be too much power, because the conditions were so much faster.
JD: Oh, I see. So you’re saying, your sense of feel is very much related to your performance.
MR: Correct. It all depends where you’re hitting the ball. Is it going where you want it to go? If it is, great. If not, either it’s your footwork, stringing, or your racquet. Usually it’ll be your footwork.
JD: What are you stringing at?
MR: I’m stringing like 52, 54 pounds. Depending on the conditions, I’ll be high 40s, sometimes.
JD: What about when you started using the poly, in 2000?
MR: I was 40s, yeah. I knew already. [Laughing] I was already, like, 44 lbs. Ahead of the game.
Click here for all of Justin diFeliciantonio's reports from the 2012 U.S. Open.