Michael Russell has often been labelled as a bulldog by his fellow competitors. That tag has been on full display during the 2014 Mylan WTT season, as the 36-year-old American has laid it all on the line for the Springfield Lasers.
Despite numerous injuries, a slow season start and heartbreaking losses, Russell and the Lasers were relentless and sealed the No. 2 seed in the West on the final day of the regular season. The following day, the team stunned the San Diego Aviators to win the Western Conference Championship and in the turn, the honor of hosting the Mylan WTT Finals versus the Washington Kastles.
Tennis.com sat down with Russell ahead of Sunday’s match to talk about Springfield’s team chemistry, the key to his success in playing the Mylan WTT format and more.
You are the only original 2014 roster draft player on the Lasers. How does it feel to be playing for the King Trophy after everything the Lasers have gone through?
To come in, like you said, being the only original drafted player and having to search for replacements at the last second is truly amazing. Our team has really meshed well together. We’re a close group and have become good friends, which has worked in our favor as we’ve won some tight matches.
The Lasers began the season 0-3, losing two Supertiebreakers at home. How was the team able to stay focused and turn a corner?
Losing the first couple matches in Supertiebreakers was difficult but we said, 'Look, we have a great team. We’re only losing by a couple points. In this type of format, it will go our way.' Sure enough, we won some close matches, including in Supertiebreakers and we started gaining momentum. We snuck into the playoffs and then played our best match to date against San Diego.
You finished the regular season as the No. 1-ranked men’s singles player. What was the key to your success?
I think it helped that I played five years ago and I finished second in singles. I knew how the format worked and that every point counts. You can’t relax. It’s basically a long sprint and I think I played exceptionally well in 99 percent of my matches.
What role did team chemistry play with all of the subs and lineup changes your team had to deal with?
JL [Lasers' head coach John-Laffnie de Jager] has done a great job of bringing us together. He has a lot of experience both playing and coaching. That helps us as we respect him. He’s used his knowledge to help us in practice situations, which translates to the matches. That helps us gain confidence and rely on each other.
Springfield has never lifted the King Trophy but is hosting the Mylan WTT Finals for the first time. What is it going to take to dethrone the three-time defending champion Washington Kastles?
We have to play well. It’s that simple. We competed well against Washington at home and have to play the same kind of match. We’ll need to play our best tennis and get the crowd behind us.
What is your favorite moment of this Mylan WTT season up to this point?
It has to be winning the match against the Texas Wild when we were down five match points. Everyone got behind me and I managed to clinch it in a Supertiebreaker. I think that was a big turning point for us, as we realized we had a great team and a chance to make the playoffs if we kept playing like that. It was really exciting, especially with the fans going crazy that night.