This week I chose to take a slightly different approach to my blog and reach out to another WAG in order to tell the story of a different husband-wife duo on the ATP tour. Lilly and Michael Russell are a couple that I really admire (even looked up to in many ways during my early days on the tennis scene). Mike is known for his hard-working demeanor and professionalism, while Lilly is known for being a friendly and kind personality in an environment that can be nothing short of isolated. I was immediately impressed with the way they supported both one another and other players, which I definitely recognized as different from how many people interacted on the tour.
It might seem crazy to think that just one person can change the atmosphere at a tournament, but for me, Lilly did just that. She was always friendly and funny, and had warm, welcoming interactions with me from the beginning. Lilly demonstrated that the pervasive theme in the players’ lounge didn’t have to be “every man for himself,” and that being affable and approachable can go a long way to impact the overall environment. Whether or not she realizes it, her sincere and openhearted nature made a big impression on me; she was an example of how I try to conduct myself to this day.
I felt the best way to introduce my readers to Lilly Russell, as well as display her wonderful sense of humor, was to conduct a simple question and answer segment. Lilly thoughtfully answered my questions, and I genuinely enjoyed hearing her candid responses below:
Kelsey: Firstly, I already know the story, but I think my readers would enjoy hearing about how you and Mike met and how you decided to start traveling with him full-time. Can you share that story with us?
Lilly: Well since you already know the real story I guess I won’t be telling you the “other story” where I went to watch Mike play. He looked at me up in the stands, then he threw me a ball with his number on it and that was is it! Haha, okay, not quite, but it sure was love at first sight. I actually met Mike through a mutual friend (Niclas Kroon), who is also a former ATP player, while Mike was playing in the men’s clay court tournament here in Houston.
We originally talked about traveling together full-time many years ago, but I kept insisting on working and remaining independent from Mike’s tennis. As an individual sport, tennis requires the ultimate discipline and is extremely time-consuming. So many tournaments are away from home that it doesn’t leave a lot of time to be together during competition or even during off weeks.
I was lucky to have a job that allowed me to travel up to 10 weeks a year, but that still wasn’t enough time when you consider how many weeks Mike was on the road. After five years of juggling my work and travel, we ultimately decided that the long distance relationship wasn’t for us and that we needed to experience the travels and adventures together every day.
Kelsey: Obviously you were a pivotal part of Mike’s support staff when he was competing. What would you say were your biggest roles or “jobs” on his team?
Lilly: Yes, I definitely had many different roles! I was his physiotherapist as much as I could be. I would also help him organize details such as packing and unpacking. I was the cook when we had a kitchen. I would also play the role of a coach and book courts and drop off racquets (sometimes even dealt with the racquets during matches). Most of all, I took on the job of doing anything else Mike needed in order to make his day easier! I was there for support 24/7 on and off the court, win or lose. I believe I was a very important part of his career and that I helped him to be more successful.
Kelsey: You were always a role model for me in how you conducted yourself and treated others at tournaments. As a wife, how did you try to make an impact on the Tour?
Lilly: Thank you! I hope that was a good thing, right? 😉 On a serious note, I don’t know if I ever was consciously trying to make an impact. I was real, being myself; I typically try not to pretend to be something I am not.
Generally I just like nice people and making friends, and I made many while on tour. To me it didn’t matter whether I was interacting with the highest ranked players, newcomers, ATP staff, WTA players, coaches or of course some of the wives, girlfriends, and family members; I enjoyed building the new relationships. Don’t get me wrong, when it came down to match days I was 100% Team Russell!
One area I do feel like I changed a little was the way us wives and girlfriends dressed on non-match days. When I started traveling on the tour, every single wife or girlfriend would be dressed up and looking great every day, but you could tell it was so uncomfortable, or at least it was for me! I took the risk to start dressing more sporty, which is totally me, and after a few years the trend caught on. And why not? It’s the day off!
Kelsey: Anyone who participates in professional tennis competitions knows how much downtime and waiting around there can be. What were some things you and Mike would do to pass the time?
Lilly: Yes, there is A LOT of downtime for sure. On match days or while on-site, Mike would be in the locker room either reading, listening to music, or in the gym. He found these things helped keep him focused and relaxed. I would typically use the down time to work out on-site if possible. I would also socialize with other players and friends, or even go watch some other tennis matches, as I love the sport.
On days when I didn’t go watch Mike at practice, sometimes I would tour the different cities we were in with my closest friends on tour such as Lucille Bryan, Kim Ebden, Lauren McHale, and of course, you! 🙂 In between tournaments, Mike and I would often go explore the different cool spots of the city and maybe even jump on a Segway tour!
Kelsey: Mike obviously had a very long career (longer than most!). His hard work and dedication to tennis showed how much he loved the game and the lifestyle of playing competitively. I know personally that this lifestyle can also be incredibly taxing, which makes his career’s longevity even more remarkable. What were some of the most difficult things about life on tour for you both, and how did you cope with them?
Lilly: Definitely injuries were the toughest thing to cope with. It was difficult because no matter how badly Mike wanted to play tennis again, he couldn’t until he was 100%. We were always positive and very active with the rehabilitation process, and of course, Mike has always been a disciplined person, which makes the recovery easier.
Another difficult thing was dealing with losses, and yes, every single person loses every week except the winner of the tournament. Even the number one player in the world loses more tournaments than he wins throughout the whole year. The day of a loss, the rest of the day felt ruined. Fortunately, the following morning was a new day, and we were often off to the next tournament. 🙂 You have to stay positive in this sport!
Kelsey: People often hear about the more glamorous parts of our lifestyle such as exciting travel or fancy dining. What we talk about much less are the negative experiences. Do you have a funny travel horror story you could share with us?
Lilly: Yes! Absolutely, we are definitely very lucky to be able to experience so many nice things. I have a few stories, but one in particular hurt the most.
Mike and I bought an expensive “all around the world” business class ticket for the European and Asian tour. It went great for the most part, until we had to take a flight from Shanghai to Moscow (approximately 10 hours in the air). This airline’s idea of business class was a lot different than most of the other airlines! The seats were so small, it was as if they were designed for a child, and they only reclined about a half inch. On top of the lack of seat comfort, the meal was a box of instant noodles, and the only movie in English was Karate Kid, which they played over and over again for 12 straight hours. We were so mad! Haha.
Kelsey: As someone who is very well-travelled, what have been your favorite worldwide destinations and why?
Lilly: As a tennis team you tend to enjoy the cities where you play the best, however I will try to put that in the backseat and give a more unbiased opinion. My favorites would be, not in preferential order:
- The British Virgin Islands, especially Necker Island, which we have visited several times. It is just an amazing place, and hard to describe in words.
- Paris is always special to me because we got engaged there.
- England, since we have so many good friends that are either from there or live there.
- Jamaica, I think the people are so welcoming and our friends are amazing there.
- Australia because it is beautiful and, once again, our friends there are awesome.
- Prague, where we had the best Segway tour ever. 🙂
- Anywhere in Hawaii.
- Of course, my hometown, Houston!
Kelsey: What are your top 5 favorite tournaments?
Lilly: There are a lot of tournaments that I really like, however Wimbledon, Indian Wells, Australian Open, U.S.Open, Shanghai, and the French Open are among the best! (And yes, I know that is six!)
Kelsey: What is next for the Russells now that Mike officially retired from competitive tennis at US Open 2015?
Lilly: What most retired people would do: travel around the world and play tennis…. Oh WAIT!??! 😉
We are actually taking some time off to finish and enjoy our new home, as well as planning and organizing our next venture. I can tell you that Mike will stay involved in tennis and I will go back to fitness. Mike is lucky to have a lot of people reaching out to him for different opportunities, so we are excited for the next chapter.
Kelsey: If you could give a new WAG some words of advice what would they be?
Lilly: If I could give advice to a wife or girlfriend on tour… Hhhmmmm, tough one. I could go on all night about this topic! I would say if you really love the player, be a part of the team and not just a spectator.
I want to thank Lilly tremendously for her involvement this week, and for offering to contribute to my blog! I hope my readers enjoyed getting to learn about a different WAG’s perspective as much as I did. If you want to follow Lilly’s adventures online, her twitter handle is @SuperLillyR.