87-year-old Russell Fink: The Late Bloomer

Russell Fink with his National Clay Courts Silver Ball

College Park Tennis Club member Russell Fink achieved the highlight of his senior playing career two weeks ago at the USTA National Men’s 85s Clay Court Championships, winning a silver ball by reaching the final in singles. This caps off a remarkable year of top results for Mr. Fink, who has now risen to No. 3 in the country and No. 22 in the world for the 85s age division. What makes the story more remarkable is that he didn’t even pick up a racquet until his mid-50s. 

Fresh off his success, Mr. Fink sat down with the All Aces staff last week to talk about playing at his age, his thoughts on what it takes to play top level tennis, and what he hopes to achieve with his success.

First of all, congratulations on the win!

My first silver ball! I got a number of bronzes in past years. Of course, my goal is to get a gold by the time I’m 100! (Laughs)

How did you start playing competitively?

I was in my mid-50s, I’m 87 now, and I got to the top of Prince George’s County ladder and I thought, “Oh boy, I’m pretty hot stuff,” (Laughs) so I decided to play the national senior events. I got the bug and I never really won anything for years. I asked one of my friends one time, “I enter all these tournaments and lose in the first round, what should I do?” He says, “Enter the next tournament.” Over the years I realized these really good guys have been playing at the top of the pros and even in college. Well I started playing when I was in my mid-50s, so they had a 40 year head start on me! They all sit around and talk about who they played in college; well, in college, I didn’t really know which end of the tennis racquet to hold. It’s been a fun trip.

Did you take lessons to get started with tennis?

No, I’ve just gotten into lessons in the past four years and I’ve started playing tennis better than I ever have in my whole life. I choose to be an example proving that old saying false, that “old dogs can’t learn new tricks.” This old dog is playing better tennis than he has in his whole life. And I’m mixing with guys who have played Davis Cup and who’ve been world champions and stuff like that. What can I say? It’s great!

You get to travel around a lot?

This year, I played about 12 tournaments. The year before was a little higher than that–15–but, it’s my avocation and it’s a costly one. People have to decide what they spend their money on; I’ve enjoyed this and my wife has supported it–she comes along on some of them.

Do you have a memorable match or moment from tournament play?

There’s a guy named Fred Kovalevski, who’s one of these guys who played the Davis Cup and tournaments like that and was a world champ as a senior. A few years ago, he was playing a local tournament nearby to get the points he needed for his ranking. So I met him in the first round in a local tournament. I can remember clearly: I was ahead of him 4-3 in the first set…and then he changed his game. (Laughs) I count it a very high privilege to look back and say that I experienced playing people that, at one time or another, were number one in the world, and keeping them on the court for an hour and a half. I figured win, lose, or draw, he had to play for an hour and a half in order to get past me!

Do you have a favorite shot?

Yeah, the one that gets the ball over the net. (Laughs) Actually, at my age, my serve is pretty good. This afternoon I was having a lesson with a guy named Steve Miguel and I told him, “My serve doesn’t work against Clement Hopp [No. 1 in the USTA Men’s 85s rankings]!” He told me a story: “When I played at Ohio State, it rained one day and we had this match with Northwestern. It was my court, the lights were dim, and I was proud of my serve. I got on the court with the number one guy from Northwestern and he just took my serve…it was like nothing! He walked on the court–my court, my place–and he beat me 7-6, 7-6. Turns out, it was Todd Martin!” So he says to me, “This is Clement Hopp! Don’t worry about your serve, the guy was good.”

What goes into your conditioning regiment?

It’s not so much muscle building as it is endurance. Offseason I’m in the gym maybe three times a week; during the season maybe once a week just to sustain my strength. It’s mostly shoulder and mid-body. With my legs I get on the court and I do bicycling for a couple of seasons a year. You just have to do it. I don’t do free weights so much as just bands and stability ball. I love water exercises, so that does my legs.

Most of the guys my age who are toward the top of the rankings, they will work out. You won’t find a fat guy on the senior tour! Most of them have also gone through major medical scares. These guys have had heart bypasses–there’s an open where you can’t play unless you’ve had a bypass! You have these people that have come through these major medicals and have been told they can’t play tennis anymore and have responded “fooey!”

Do you keep up with the professional tour? Do you have a favorite player?

I love to watch them! Last night I was watching Federer and I watched too much of it. I love Federer. And, on the women’s side, whenever Ivanovic gets on the court or Sloane Stephens, I can’t take my eyes off of them. We always root for the Americans, of course. I’m glad Jack Sock is making it–I like him a lot. And Isner, I can’t get over watching Isner, he’s just so smooth.

We’re all really excited about Tiafoe. My friend always keeps track of him if he’s playing in a tournament, so we keep up with him. I look at these kids and I wonder which ones of them will make it. They hit the ball so well and so hard…do they have the drive inside to succeed and will Tiafoe be able to withstand the notoriety? Will he be able to hold his head up? No matter how old or young you are, the brain will affect what’s happening with your body.

What advice would you have for our junior players?

The pro I work with, Steve Miguel, always asks, “what’s your aim?” and I say, “to get better.” He says no matter where you’re playing or who you’re playing, the aim is to improve. More and more, the older I get, the goal becomes to enjoy and play the best I can play, which maybe I can improve tomorrow. Play the best you can and enjoy yourself.

Tell me about your role with Annapolis Area Tennis School.

It’s a non-profit that does what you do with your community program here. One of the things I’ve brought to the organization–a lot of it is very personal–is senior tennis. Vic Braden was quoted in the paper this week–and I remember him saying this long ago–saying “If you don’t fall over when you’re leaving the water cooler, you can learn tennis.” That’s my particular individual contribution, even though I’ve been running the outfit for ten years. Most of the teaching I’ve done, which hasn’t been much, has been with seniors. If I can be an inspiration in some way to the senior crowd, that would be great. I’ve seen seniors develop from almost nothing to getting on the court and playing social, hit-and-giggle mixed tennis and have fun. And they can do it!

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I didn’t even want to say this much! (Laughs) Really and truly, when something like this happens, you have to be elated, but yet, I can point to that [rankings] list and point to 20 guys that can beat the pants off of me. Of course, I can point to another 20 that I can beat the pants off of them, but it is what is and I’ve enjoyed it. Tennis adds life to your years and years to your life. I just love to see the old guys play. It’s pretty rotten tennis in many cases, but they’re there! And they’re picking up balls and getting their exercise. They’ll get maybe one ball out of every ten over the net, but that’s good enough!

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