Russell, who is Jewish, was born in Detroit, Michigan. He started playing tennis at age five with his father, George, who was formerly a member of the University of Michigan's Big 10 Conference 1965 championship team. His mother, Carole, also attended the University of Michigan, and is an English teacher. His older brother David played tennis at Princeton University, and attended Harvard Business School.
Russell grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a Detroit suburb. He played soccer until his freshman year of high school.
In 1995, Russell was the valedictorian at Saddlebrook High School in Florida. He then attended the University of Miami in 1996–97.
Russell married his wife Lilly, a fitness competitor whom he had met in 2004, on November 10, 2007. His nicknames include "Mighty Mouse," "Spanky," "Wheels," and "Iron Mike."
He is one of the few current Association of Tennis Professionals players who have a college degree, having earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Phoenix in January 2012. Russell graduated with Honors and a 3.94 grade point average. He reflected, “I was raised, as are most Jewish people, not to forego a university education."
In 1991, Russell lost in the finals of the 1991 USTA National Boys' 14 Indoor Championships. In 1993, he won the USTA National Boys' 16 Indoor Doubles Championship with Kevin Kim.
Russell finished 1994 ranked # 1 in both singles and doubles in the USTA Boys' 16 rankings. He won the 1994 USTA National Boys' 16 Championships, beating top-seeded Kevin Kim in the finals, and won the doubles title with Geoff Abrams. He lost in the finals of the 1994 USTA National Boys' 16 Clay Court Championships to Kevin Kim, and beat Bob Bryan in the semi-finals and Kim in the finals of the 1994 Easter Bowl Boys' 16s Championships.
In 1995, he won the singles title at the USTA National Boys’ 18 Clay Court Championships, beating Kevin Kim in the finals, while losing in the doubles finals with Geoff Abrams. Russell reached the second round in singles and the quarterfinals in doubles with Kim at the 1995 Australian Open Junior Championships.
In 1996, he was ranked #1 in U.S. Boys' 18-Under. That year, Russell won the 1996 Easter Bowl boys’ 18 championships, beating Bob Bryan in the finals, and won the doubles title with Kim at the 1996 Asuncion Bowl in Asuncion, Paraguay. He lost in the singles finals at the 1996 USTA National Boys’ 18 Clay Court Championships to Bob Bryan. At the 1996 USTA National Boys’ 18 Championships, he lost in the singles semifinals to Kevin Kim, and in the doubles final with Kim to Bob and Mike Bryan. He was a doubles quarterfinalist with Kim at the 1996 Wimbledon junior championships. He won the USTA Midwest Section 1996 Wallace R. Holzman, Sr. Award.
Russell played number one singles for the University of Miami in 1996–97. He was named 1997 NCAA Rookie of the Year and an All American, and finished # 7 in collegiate rankings (and # 1 among freshmen), before he turned pro in 1997. His 39 singles match wins were a school record, and he was the first freshman since 1986 to win the Rolex National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships, defeating Fred Niemeyer in the finals. He was also named to the 1997 Rolex Collegiate All-Star Team, selected by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association and Tennis Magazine, and the Big East Championship Most Outstanding Player.
A week before he was to go pro in 1997, while serving to Andre Agassi during a 1997 practice session in North Carolina he suffered a spiral fracture of the humerus bone in his right arm. He spent the next five months rehabbing his arm. In 1997 Russell won USTA Satellite Circuit tournaments in Waco, Texas, Springfield, Missouri, and St. Joseph, Missouri.
In 1998, he won the singles title at the USTA Satellite in Mobile, Alabama. In 1999, Russell won USTA Futures events in Vero Beach, Florida, and Weston, Florida.
In 2000, Russell won the USTA Challenger in Amarillo, Texas, defeating Stefano Pescosolido in the finals, and won the doubles title with Tommy Robredo at the Edinburgh, Scotland, Challenger. He also won his first ATP match, defeating Hugo Armando in the first round of the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Orlando, Florida. He was named a practice partner for the United States Davis Cup team for the U.S. vs. Spain Davis Cup semifinal in Santander, Spain.
In 2001, he finished ranked in the top 100 in the world. Russell won the singles and doubles, with Robert Kendrick, championships at the USTA Futures event in Mobile, Alabama. He became the first player to play his way into four consecutive Grand Slam events in succession through qualifiers (2000 Wimbledon, US Open; 2001 Australian Open, Roland Garros).
In his French Open debut, as a qualifier he advanced to the fourth round. There, he faced world # 1 Gustavo Kuerten, the defending champion, whom he beat in the first two sets. He had match point at 5–3 in the third set, and was serving. But Kuerten saved the match point at the end of a 26-stroke rally with a forehand winner that landed on the baseline. "It's unfortunate we have umpires," Russell joked, "because I would have called it out." Kuerten then came back to defeat Russell in the 205-minute match 3–6, 4–6, 7–6 (7), 6–3, 6–1.
In 2003, Russell was hampered by a right knee injury for much of the year. He had arthroscopic surgery in May. Between 2003 and the following year he had three knee surgeries to address a condition that had been hampering him known as osteochondritis dissecans. It is a genetic disorder usually found in 16-year-olds, in which his bone and cartilage separated and broke off from the rest of his knee and femur. He ultimately required surgery on both his knees. His father said:
He reminds me of Don Quixote … [tilting] at those windmills. For every success, I can tell you, there's been hours on the couch with ice bags on his knees. After the third knee operation, most people would have thrown up their hands and said, 'I'm star-crossed, I can't do it.' But Michael has persevered. That's why he's our hero.
In 2004, he won singles titles at the USTA Futures event in Buffalo, New York, defeating Jorge Aguilar in the finals, at the USTA Futures event in Pittsburgh, and at the ITF Futures event in Quebec, Canada. In June 2005, Russell tore his right hamstring in a tournament in Ecuador. He spent four and a half months in rehab, and began taking courses at University of California, Berkeley by the internet. Flying home on a 20-hour flight from the qualifying for the 2006 Australian Open, he developed blood clots in both of his lungs. He had his problem treated with ten days of injections of the blood thinners Coumadin and Lovenox.
In 2007 he won a Challenger tournament in Noumea, New Caledonia. Two weeks later, in the first round of the 2007 Australian Open, Russell led former # 1 player Lleyton Hewitt two sets to love on center court before succumbing. In the 2007 Indian Wells Masters event, he made it to the final 16 players in a 96-player field, after upsetting 11th seed – and 12th-ranked – Tomas Berdych in round 2 in straight sets. By August 2007, in his first ten years as a pro tennis player he had won approximately $750,000 in official prize money, but after his expenses for airfare, hotel bills, meals, rental cars, taxes, and sneakers, as sportswriter Greg Garber wrote in an ESPN article: "In terms of net income, a minimum-wage worker at McDonald's did better financially than Russell did during the nine years before 2007."
On May 25, 2008, he was named USTA Circuit Player of the Week after winning three consecutive singles titles. In April 2010, he was at the age of 31 the third-oldest player in the men's top 75.
Russell made his first ATP semi-final at the 2012 U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships in Houston, Texas. He came through qualifying and beat top seed, world # 9 and compatriot Mardy Fish in straight sets on his way to a three-set loss to Juan Monaco. The win against Fish was his first over a top-10 player. He ended the 2012 season as the third-oldest man in the ATP Top 100.
Russell, as a lucky loser, made it to the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. National Indoor Tennis Championships, losing to Denis Istomin in straight sets. In November 2013, he won an ATP Challenger in Charlottesville by coming back from 0–5 in the final set against Canadian Peter Polansky for the win.
The victory pushed him into the top 80 in the world rankings, and he became the third-highest-ranked American in the world. His 23 USTA Pro Circuit singles titles as of November 2013 was the all-time record. At the 2014 Rogers Cup in Toronto,he pushed David Ferrer to come up with his best tennis.
In 2015 at 36-years-young, Russell earned a spot representing premier American men's professional tennis at the Australian Open. He was later defeated in the first round of the Tournament in Melbourne. Annually, the Australian Open serves as the initial Grand Slam event in the (ITF) professional series.
Russell retired from professional tennis at the 2015 US Open.
Russell has "startling acceleration, precise footwork and, most important, a voracious work ethic." He is a defensive counter-puncher, known for his tremendous footspeed, consistency, potent forehand, and fitness, which allows him to keep balls in play. John McEnroe described him as a particularly dogged competitor, saying that "no one's going to try harder on a tennis court than Michael Russell".
People questioned his potential when he was a junior because they thought he was too little for pro tennis. In 2001, at 5-foot-7, 160 pounds, he was one of the 3 or 4 smallest players among the world's top 150 players. An ESPN article in 2007, noting that he was 5-foot-8 and weighed 160 pounds, called him: "one of the smallest players in the professional game."Key
Won tournament; or reached Final; Semifinal; Quarter-final; Round 4, 3, 2, 1; competed at a Round Robin stage; lost in Qualification Round; absent from tournament event; played in a Davis Cup - / Fed Cup Zonal Group (with its number indication) or Play-off; won a bronze, silver (F or S) or gold medal at the Olympics; a downgraded Masters Series/1000 tournament (Not a Masters Series); or a tournament that was Not Held in a given year.
To avoid confusion and double counting, these charts are updated either at the conclusion of a tournament, or when the player's participation in the tournament has ended.
1 Held as Hamburg Masters (outdoor clay) until 2008, Madrid Masters (outdoor clay) 2009–present.
2 Held as Stuttgart Masters (indoor hard) until 2001, Madrid Masters (indoor hard) from 2002–08, and Shanghai Masters (outdoor hard) 2009–present.