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Michael Russell won 15 ATP Challenger Tour titles and 77 tour-level matches as a player.

Michael Russell On Federer's Win Over Sandgren: 'He Put On Robot Mode'

Former World No. 60 coaches Sandgren and McDonald

Tennys Sandgren played one of the most memorable matches of the 2020 ATP Tour season thus far against Roger Federer in the Australian Open quarter-finals.

ATPTour.com spoke to his coach, former World No. 60 Michael Russell, about what was going through his mind during the match, how he approached his messaging to Sandgren afterwards, how he wants his charge to move forward, and more. Russell coaches both Sandgren and fellow American Mackenzie McDonald.

What was going through your mind during the match?
During three-out-of-five-set matches, there are a lot of swings. So I’m always very even-keeled anyways during a match. I don’t like to show too much emotion, never any negative emotion. But I want the player to be able to look over and see the calmness, but also the confidence as well.

I will show them some fist pumps and some verbal encouragement, but obviously your heart is racing at certain times in the match. You get more excited and you try to urge him on and keep that confidence in him, the patience, the confidence and the tranquility. There’s no panic at any moment.

Tennys had seven match points and it didn’t seem like he played those points poorly. Roger seemed to play as well as he did the whole match in those situations. How did you see it?
I’ll be candid. He played the match points conservatively, which is understandable in that situation. You feel like, 'Okay, I don’t want to go for too much' because you feel like, 'I don’t know how many opportunities I’m going to have.'

So a little bit of it is kind of saying, 'Okay, I’m going to play these balls to Roger. Roger might make an error.' You can see that a little bit in there. He played a couple points aggressively, a little bit unlucky with that point where he came in, had the volley, went cross-court and not down the line, he knows that. Roger hit an amazing stick save.

He only had one match point on his serve, didn’t hit the spot that he wanted to on the serve and unfortunately lost the point. He could have played a little more aggressively of course in hindsight. But it’s easy in hindsight to look at that. He didn’t really make an error unless he was a little off balance. And kudos to Roger, he stepped up and basically put on freaking robot mode where he wasn’t going to miss a ball on those points.

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What did you say to Tennys when you got in the locker room?
Obviously, he was extremely disappointed being so close to beating such a good player in Federer in that stage, in a quarter-final. He not only wanted to beat Roger and be in the semi-finals, but he was really looking forward to the test of playing Djokovic. Sandgren is extremely fit and he wanted that physical test also of playing Novak. But there are so many positives to take away from the tournament.

Coming in he was even a little physically banged up. So to get through four matches — one five-setter against Berrettini, a Top 10 player, a really tough four-setter with a lot of drama against Fognini. he had to play Querrey, who’s a dangerous opponent, took him out in the fourth round of Wimbledon the year before — I was really proud of how well he competed and mentally engaged himself and just reminded him of that after the match. I reminded him how much opportunity, how much inspiration, how many positives he can really take away from this and really build on it in the rest of 2020. 

When you were talking to him afterwards, were you sort of reminding him that he was right there against Roger Federer?
It’s reminding him that he is a player that can be Top 25 in the world, Top 20, and not getting complacent in that mindset or mentality where, 'I’m playing Roger, I had that opportunity, it’s lost.' It’s more about, 'Okay, I’ve been having great Grand Slam runs, I’ve done well at some 250s, I can do this. I can be a more consistent top-level player. This is just gratification showing how good I am, so let’s build on this. So yes, I’m disappointed. Yes, I was in a great situation. But at the same time, I put myself in this situation in the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam.

This was not match points against Roger at a smaller tournament. This is a Grand Slam quarter-final. I’ve won a lot of matches, put a lot of hard yards in to get to this point. I can do this again, I can continue to do this. And now I’ve created an aura and energy that people know how fit I am. Let’s use this and build upon it.'

He’s had success at ATP 250s before, winning last year in Auckland, but Tennys has also had some patches where he hasn’t played as well. How much of this is about translating the level he’s shown on the big stages throughout the calendar to produce consistent results?
It’s taking that competitiveness, fierce mentality and focus from the Grand Slams into the ATP 250s, the ATP 500s, the ATP Masters 1000s and being able to do that consistently and sustaining that throughout the year, and that’s what makes somebody Top 20. 

People may not know that he got hurt in Zhuhai last September, and missed almost the entire rest of the season. So after dealing with that, how nice was it to see Tennys start his season like he did?
It was unfortunate. He basically played on a stress fracture even a little bit probably at the US Open and he made the third round. Played on it against Andy Murray in Zhuhai, played a great match, but then basically had to take the rest of the fall off.

He was healthy for the pre-season, which was really important, because he pushed really hard in that pre-season and that paid dividends right away in Australia. He was extremely fit, which he is, and that helped him really mentally battle through that adversity and those tough times.

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You were always well-known for your fitness, so is it nice to see the aura Tennys created in that regard in Australia?
I think it creates a definite advantage on court. Players are talking about it, they know this guy is extremely fit, plays physical tennis. So in a three-out-of-five-set match, it’s going to be a battle. I have to be willing to suffer and a lot of players, they might not be willing to put that type of suffering in while Tennys is definitely willing to do that and that’s giving him a lot of confidence. It’s also creating a lot of chatter in the locker room because people know that.

A lot of casual fans may now think of Tennys as the guy who was so close to beating Roger. So what will it take for him to take the next step, continue improving his FedEx ATP Ranking and shed that label?
It’s not getting so caught up in the noise around with media or players. It’s always keeping that focus and tunnel vision that you have on court, also on the practice court, even in your daily life.

He’s strict with his nutrition and his fitness. It’s always making sure you have that goal in sight. You’re always keeping that motivation and striving to keep progressing on court, off court. And I think, ultimately, that will help him be more consistent throughout the year. That’s what we’re striving for.

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In terms of Tennys’ game, he’s comfortable on defence, he serves well, he has an all-around game with which he can do a lot of different things, but sometimes he falls back to that base of playing defence. Is taking that next step from good to great playing aggressively in the big moments?
Definitely. You look at guys that are winning Slams or going deep, they’re willing to step up in those pressure moments. I’m not saying you just have to hit balls and run them down, but they’re playing attacking tennis at those pressure moments, whether that’s hitting a big groundstroke, whether that’s coming in, whether that’s taking time away, whether that’s attacking a second serve. So it’s getting comfortable in those situations through confidence and experience.