After 100 minutes of fighting and flailing in the gale-force Florida wind last Monday afternoon, Taylor Fritz found himself with three championship points at the Delray Beach Open.

In one corner of the small stadium, Fritz’s girlfriend, Morgan Riddle, and his coach’s wife, Lilly Russell, celebrated excitedly. Their man had bounced back from a recent injury, and was now one swing from defending his title in Delray.

How was Fritz’s coach, Michael Russell, reacting to the moment? The 45-year-old former player clapped his hands mildly, then turned his head to watch Fritz begin the next point. That was it. No fist-pumps, no standing ovations, no screams of “Do it now, Taylor!”

If you’ve watched many of the American’s matches over the past few years, Russell’s reaction—or lack thereof—probably doesn’t surprise you. Tennis coaches do their best to keep their emotions, especially the negative ones, under wraps when their players are on court. But Russell takes the poker-face thing to another level.

“I literally have no expression,” he says with a laugh. “The other players like to tease me about it.”

Fritz has reached a different major quarterfinal in each of his seasons working with Russell (2022 Wimbledon, 2023 US Open, 2024 Australian Open).

Fritz has reached a different major quarterfinal in each of his seasons working with Russell (2022 Wimbledon, 2023 US Open, 2024 Australian Open).


Russell’s ultra-calm manner is all the more noticeable because it’s not as common in tennis as it once was. Coaching has been allowed during matches since 2022, and many players demand high-octane cheerleading from their player boxes as well. Think of Andy Murray or Danielle Collins screaming at their teams to stand up and “Give me something!” Russell knows that’s not what Fritz is looking for.

“Some players need extra motivation from an external source,” he says. “Taylor’s motivation is always high. I just want to show quiet positivity.”

Quiet positivity, and effectiveness, seems to be Russell’s stock in trade as a coach. Over the past six years, the Detroit-area native and Houston resident has helped Frances Tiafoe, Ryan Harrison, Tennys Sandgren, and MacKenzie McDonald move higher in the rankings. Russell has done the same with Fritz, who broke into the Top 10 in 2022 and has been the top-ranked American man for most of the past two seasons. Yet even during that time, he has largely worked in the shadows of Fritz’s more-famous mentor, Paul Annacone.

That said, Russell would seem to be the perfect model for a coach. As a player, the man sometimes known as Iron Mike was the quintessential “get the most of what he had” kind of guy. He was an undersized 5-foot-8 who used all the craft, patience, stamina, and strength he could muster to reach a career-high No. 60 in 2007. His claim to fame came early, in 2001, when he was a point away from shocking top seed Gustavo Kuerten at Roland Garros. But Russell soldiered on from there for more than a decade, seemingly getting stronger as he aged, until he finally called it quits in 2015.

Ironically, the one thing he didn’t make use of as a pro was coaching.

“I was on my own most of the time,” says Russell, whose father taught him the sport. “I had to analyze my opponents and make all the tactical preparations.”

Taylor’s motivation is always high. I just want to show quiet positivity. —Michael Russell


Russell was the rare pro athlete who was also the valedictorian at his high school. When his 17 years on tour were over, he felt like he had earned the equivalent of a Ph.D in professional tennis. He started coaching privately, then went to work for the USTA.

“My body was breaking down,” he says of his transition from playing to coaching, “and I realized I enjoyed helping people get better.”

So what does a 5-foot-8 grinder who learned the game in the 1980s tell a 6-foot-5 power server who plays 21st-century first-strike tennis? Russell doesn’t see as much difference between those time periods as some others do.

“The game is ballistic now, but that was starting to come in when I was on tour, too,” says Russell, who started his career in the Sampras era and finished it in the Djokovic era.

“Taylor plays completely the opposite of the way I did,” he admits, while citing other successful partnerships, like Marian Vajda and Novak Djokovic, between coaches and players whose games didn’t resemble each other. It’s nothing that a little diligent scouting work can’t make up for.

Russell’s typical day will consist of an early, two-hour practice with Fritz, and then two or three more hours of video analysis of his next opponent.

“That’s the part people don’t see,” Russell says of his job, which, contrary to appearances, doesn’t end when the match is over. “I had a friend who asked me, ‘What do you even do?’”

Under Russell's guidance, Fritz has firmly held onto the title as the ATP's No. 1-ranked American.

Under Russell's guidance, Fritz has firmly held onto the title as the ATP's No. 1-ranked American.


Fortunately, Russell says, he doesn’t have trouble getting Fritz to engage with the analytics aspect of the sport.

“He’s good with that stuff, he likes to talk about it.”

Fritz hasn’t always been a fan of another modern-day innovation: On-court coaching. When it was instituted in the summer of 2022, he blasted it as a “dumb rule” and said he and Russell never made use of it during matches.

Two years later, Russell says he likes the change.

“I know Taylor has said he doesn’t like it, but he communicates with me,” Russell says.

The important thing is not to overdo it.

“Just give a few important keys, and make sure the player is making adjustments,” he says. “If emotions are creeping in, you can tell him to pull back.”

If there’s a downside to on-court coaching, it’s the added second-guessing that can come after a defeat.

“If he loses a match,” Russell says, “you might ask yourself if there’s something more you could have said” to help.


Things have also changed between players and coaches off the court, according to Russell. The days of doing dinner and spending hangout time together have mostly gone by the wayside.

“It’s more of a business relationship now,” he says. “You need to have a personal synergy with someone, but players and coaches take a little more time away from each other, which I think is healthy. The season is longer, the tournaments like the Masters 1000s are getting longer.”

Russell says he couldn’t do the job if Lilly wasn’t part of the traveling team. He and his wife, a fellow fitness fanatic, have embraced the on-the-road married life.

“We’ve made friends in different places, so this gives us a chance to keep up with them.”

As for the most important part of his job—Fritz’s game—Russell likes what he has seen in the early stages of 2024. The 26-year-old finished last season with an ab injury, but a “good training block” before the Australian Open helped him make the quarterfinals in Melbourne, a run that included what may have been his biggest win at a major, over Stefanos Tsitsipas. In the quarters, Djokovic ground him down in four sets, but Fritz will come to Acapulco next week with a 9-1 record on the year.

“I think the training he did helped him see that he could stay with Djokovic,” Russell said. “It was a good indicator of what he needs to put in.”

While Russell says that Fritz is among the best competitors in the sport, it’s what he does off the court that may determine how high he’ll climb. It’s hard to train extensively during the season, but they’ve been “micro-dosing in the gym” at tournaments.

“You have to be a sort of benevolent dictator as a coach,” Russell says. “You need the player to buy in. It’s still a process, but he wants to be Top 5.”

Russell was happy with the way Fritz moved in Delray, and how he fended off the “challenging conditions.” A few more weeks like that, and he might even crack a smile.