PARIS, May 28 (Reuters) - For Michael Russell it was a familiar routine.
The Houston-based 35-year-old had just been forced to retire from his first-round match at Roland Garros with a hamstring injury and was heading back to his hotel to begin patching up his body again.
It has been like that for 15 years for a player whose nicknames include “Iron Mike” and “Mussell”.
Russell is thankful he has played in an era graced by Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal yet, for the most part, his path has been far from the bright lights enjoyed by the sport’s elite.
He has never got higher than 60th in the world and has reached only one ATP semi-final, but a graph of Russell’s ranking is a flat line nearly always inside the top 100 - where the money is made.
At 1.73m, Russell is dwarfed by the giants who shred the felt off tennis balls these days, yet through hard graft and “hours each day icing and stretching” he continues to hold his own.
Talking in the bowels of Philippe Chatrier Court, Russell remained upbeat after retiring against Martin Klizan, despite missing out on the chance to face Nadal in the second round.
“Tennis is full of what-ifs, and whys,” the third oldest player in the men’s draw told Reuters.
Injuries have been part and parcel of Russell’s life and he says he is lucky that his wife Lilly is a physiotherapist. It’s also fortunate that Russell’s first love is “working out”.
”Hence the nickname. Even though my life is consumed in tennis when I get an injury I get frustrated because I can’t work out.
“I’ll start tonight, I’ve got special tools and machines that help me recover from injuries so I’ll be doing that tonight,” he said. “I’ll be fine in three or four days.”
Russell’s greatest claim to fame is having match point against Gustavo Kuerten at Roland Garros in 2001. The Brazilian eventually won through and went on to take a third title.
”Playing Guga was amazing,“ he said. ”To be that close to beating a player like that. I remember winning my opening service game and thinking at least I‘m not losing 0-0-0.
”It was a high and a low moment, being so close.
”Playing (Lleyton) Hewitt on centre in Australia in 2007 and taking him to five when I had just come back into the top 100 was pretty neat too. Being on that big stage again.
“I’ve played in all the four big stadiums and not many players can say that. But facing Rafa at Wimbledon was probably my favourite moment. I lost 4, 2 and 2 but it was a fun match with lots of entertaining points and diving around.”
While those moments are for the scrapbook, Russell’s bread and butter is making enough money to pay his way.
”I love the competiton and as long as I can stay in the top 100 and get in the tourenaments I want, I can make money,“ he said. ”If I wasn’t in the top 100 then maybe it would be time to start doing something else.
”I thought about quitting in 2012. My ranking was 130 or so, I was unhappy with my equipment, but then I got to the semis in Houston and three weeks later I was back in the top 100.
“It’s not just the physical side of the tour, it’s the mental side with all the travelling - it’s like groundhog day.”
Should he decide to step off the tennis treadmill, Russell is already primed for a new career after gaining a BA in business administration while globe-trotting on the tour.
“I remember at the Australian Open I played (Juan Martin) Del Potro, a three-hour match that ended at 9.30 at night...then I had to come home and do a three-hour exam paper. Not many players have to deal with that.”
“I got a 3.94 average too,” he adds bashfully.
Clearly cut out for more than what he describes as the “me, me, me” world of tennis, Russell says he could have earned far more than the $1.9 million he has pocketed in prize money had he followed his brother’s path to Harvard.
But it might not have been so much fun.
“I think I‘m smart enough to have worked my way up in the business world,” he said. “But I love the sport. And I will walk away knowing I gave it my all.” (Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Robert Woodward)