Russell captures Honolulu event
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
WAIPAHU — Fresh off frightening the reigning U.S. Open champion in Melbourne, Michael Russell made his way to the inaugural Honolulu Challenger to continue his tennis purge in paradise.
The top-seeded Russell ripped through Grega Zemlja, 6-0, 6-3, yesterday in a final that lasted a little more than an hour. Earlier at the Patsy T. Mink CORP Tennis Complex, Kevin Anderson and Ryler Deheart erased five match points to win the doubles title, 2-6, 7-6, 15-13, over Kyu Tae Im and Martin Slanar.
The high quality of that match — particularly in the special third-set tiebreaker (scheduled for first to 10) — was more than enough to keep about 400 spectators in their seats for the singles championship. They filled the built-in bleacher at the stadium court and littered the opposite lawn and railings above the baselines.
Next year, the USTA Hawai'i Pacific Section plans to bring in bleachers and tents, but not an admission charge. The idea behind grabbing the $50,000 USTA Pro Circuit Challenger for O'ahu is to let folks see — in loud, often spectacular living color — world-class tennis in person, and be inspired to serve it up themselves.
The Challenger has been at Waikoloa since 2000 and previous champions include Andy Roddick (2001), James Blake (2002) and Russell, in 2007. That would become his first full year of tennis since 2002, with three knee surgeries and other injuries keeping Russell, who won the Maui Challenger in 2006, off the court more than on it.
The Big Island win came two weeks after he fell in five sets to Lleyton Hewitt in the Australian Open's first round. Two weeks ago today, Russell fell to fourth-ranked Juan Martin Del Potro in four sets Down Under, earning a little more than $17,000. Yesterday's championship was worth $7,200 and 80 ranking points, enough to lift him up to 70-something in the world from his current 90.
"I feel like I have a chance against anybody in the world, even Nadal and Federer," said Russell, who vacations in Hawai'i every year with his wife. "I felt comfortable against Del Potro. I didn't serve that well. I felt if I'd served better it would have gone five sets and maybe I could have pulled off an upset."
Russell is the only man to qualify for all four grand slams in a single year in the open era (since 1968). Last year, the 31-year-old won four times on the Pro Circuit — the USTA's pipeline to top-level ATP tournaments — and he now has a record 22 Pro Circuit singles titles.
His next three starts will be on the ATP Tour, where he expects to see Zemlja soon. The 23-year-old Slovenian with the big serve is ranked 169th and split matches with Russell last year, when he reached three Pro Circuit finals. Zemlja's only Challenger win came in 2008.
He didn't come close yesterday. Russell, who is 5 feet 8 and 160 pounds, ran Zemlja ragged and won every long rally, and there were many. Zemlja won just five points the first four games and his serve deserted him. Two of his three aces came in the second game of the second set and helped him win his first game.
Zemlja doffed his cap to the cheering fans and smiled in relief. Russell would break him four games later and skate in, serving well enough to stay on the offensive, slicing, dicing and launching winners from the baseline, and playing nearly mistake-free.
Zemlja was lost.
"The whole week the serve was good. Today serve was the biggest trouble," he said, then added that Russell was also a major cause of his frustration. "It felt like a match I cannot win. He was so much better than I was. I think, like he said after the match, he was saving best for last. That's what it felt like."
Now, Russell will turn it up a notch, and hope his body can take the heat.
"I've played professionally since 1998 and I've learned a lot of stuff, and there's still a lot I'm learning," he said. "This game is so physical. You really have to pay a lot of attention to recovery and fitness."
Which might explain all those timeouts to call a trainer at this year's Australian Open.
"It's 3-out-of-5 sets and the court this year had a little more sand in it," Russell said. "That means it's a little slower and a little rougher on your knees and lower back so guys feel it. And, unfortunately, it seemed like some guys were losing and started grabbing at stuff. It's easy to make an excuse."