Fresh off the win against the higher-ranked Sylvia Hanika that put her in the 1982 Wimbledon quarterfinals, tennis star JoAnne Russell walked into the post-match press conference with a smile a mile wide.
Little did she know, her opponent had just moodily stated she didn’t think Russell could best the next challenge of one Martina Navratilova. What did she think about the statement? Russell was asked.
She just leaned into the microphone and said of Hanika, toying, “I’ve got a better chance than she does!”
“That’s the quintessential Russ story,” says her friend and NBC sportscaster Mary Carillo, a resident former pro, herself.
Russell is full of spark, from that mile-wide smile down to her lime-laced tennis shoes. She sports both at a recent Fun Friday clinic—a group lesson where she teaches at Naples’ Grey Oaks Country Club—her top and ruffled skirt matching her men’s Asics. A month after cataract surgery, she’s no longer rocking the coke-bottle glasses she used to wear.
A lot of skilled players won’t play at night because they can’t see, says JoAnne’s teaching partner and close friend Samantha Ardenfriend-
Samotin, but: “JoAnne doesn’t care—she can’t see ever. She just plays. She’s an animal. She’s an alien.”
While an anomalous number of tennis greats have chosen Southwest Florida to settle down—Emilio Sánchez Vicario, Pavel Složil, Johan Kriek—Russell, with a 1977 Wimbledon doubles championship among her 13-year pro tour accomplishments, got her start right here.
She still hits from time to time on the same cracked backboard at Cambier Park she practiced on for hours as a child, back when it was just a couple of cement courts and coin-fed lighting. Her parents, who helped develop Cambier through the Naples Tennis Club, loved the sport. Her three siblings played. She wanted to be as good as her older cousin Margie. When she was 6 or 7, a big-time local Realtor who had come from the then-tennis-hotbed of St. Louis gave her and her siblings lessons. By the time she was 10, she would bike to the park from her home in the Moorings—she lives there today with her older sister, Lee—to sit and watch until a retiree would ask her to play.
“That’s why my game is the way it is—I can do a lot of things,” Russell says. “I’m a lot more creative, like, drop shot, lobbing. Those guys—that’s all they did. I had to run for everything.”
Her first big break came when pro Tommy Boys saw her win a local tournament when she was 14. “You know, your daughter could be a pro,” he told her parents.
“My dad just laughed,” Russell says. “I think I double-faulted like 25 times. I didn’t have a very good serve.”
But soon enough her parents were driving her to stay up at his house in Cape Coral with his wife and children each weekend for lessons—quite a drive when town ended at Fifth Avenue South. Boys believed in her potential so much that when Russell’s parents could no longer afford his lessons he taught her for free. Russell didn’t learn of the generosity until her first year in the pros.
“Tommy gave me an unbelievable volley—thank God for him,” Russell says, adding, “He changed me from a two to a one—I had a terrible two-handed backhand—and he made me a serve-and-volley player.”
At the top of her game, Russell ranked as the No. 11 woman singles player in the world. Today, she’ll play if a member asks, “But for fun, you won’t catch me playing singles.” Too much running, she says, though the 60-year-old who works out at 6:15 in the morning still competes with players half her age. On top of lessons and matches at Grey Oaks, she plays doubles in the Naples Pro League, in exhibition matches across the state for charities such as Wounded Warriors and the Humane Society. She gives lessons across the country through former pro Dick Stockton’s Blue Sky Foundation.
It’s clear her teaching style is a mixture of kind correction and encouragement, her whistle-while-she-works personality shining through. Observe and you’ll hear things like, “Don’t worry!” “Good point!” “Golly Moses!” and “I’ll give you another serve!” Any intimidation you feel from her reputation goes away as soon as you meet her, says Grey Oaks Director of Tennis Steve Vaughan.
“If she taught the way she played, she would make people cry,” Ardenfriend-Samotin says. In competition, you can’t hit a ball she doesn’t run down. You’re in trouble any time she gets the ball at the net. If you make a bad call, look out. If you make too many unforced errors, you’re going to hear about it. If you talk too much, she’ll tell you. And if she didn’t tap the court twice with her racquet from behind the baseline, it is definitely not OK to serve to her.
“Her playing style is—she is very aggressive,” Vaughan seconds. “She’s very confident. She’s very what we would call ‘solid,’ which means she doesn’t have big weapons but she’s solid all around. … It’s not easy to beat her by picking on a weakness or anything because there aren’t any.”
It’s the old-school game Carillo says she always wanted. Russell has to play the forehand side, the deuce side, and her partner has to play the backhand side and serve first.
But that consistency is what earned her collegiate championships; her No. 1 world ranking in doubles with Rosie Casals; her four trips to the Wimbledon quarterfinals; her one finalist run and five quarterfinalist runs in the U.S. Open; tournament wins in her 50s overseas; her Naples High School Hall of Fame, Trinity University Athletic Hall of Fame, Intercollegiate Tennis Association Women’s Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame and Florida Tennis Hall of Fame honors. Everything except her big Wimbledon win.
“This girl [her partner, Helen Gourlay Cawley] happened to like the deuce side, which is JoAnne’s favorite, and JoAnne said, ‘OK, fine, I’ll take the other,’ and they ended up winning Wimbledon,” Vaughan says. They’d never even met prior to their pairing. “It doesn’t get better than that.”
Vaughan met Russell years ago at Naples’ Sunburst Café, introducing himself after recognizing her by a University of Illinois sweatshirt (she coached there for eight years under Sujay Lama after the two worked together under Andy Brandi at the University of Florida).
He proceeded to snag her for Grey Oaks; entice her to a club in Linville, North Carolina, during the summers; and lure her back to Grey Oaks once again following a two-year stint in Los Angeles. She’s been here ever since. She gets other offers all the time, Vaughan says, just as she did for head coach positions when assisting for Lama. But across the country or around the globe, Russell stays true to herself.
She’ll beg Tom Selleck to sign a cushion for charity, as she did in the company of sports and movie stars when she was invited by Nancy Regan to play at a Just Say No fundraiser at the White House. She’ll ignore the formality of silverware and eat fried chicken with her hands when sitting next to Jimmy Stewart, as she did when visiting the Swedish ambassador’s house with fellow pro Kathy Jordan for a World Wildlife Fund event. She’s not ashamed to admit that she has held onto tennis memorabilia; framed a Mother Goose & Grimm comic drawn for her on a piece of Styrofoam by the illustrator; and starred in a 1979 U.S. Postal Service ad after they caught wind of her stamp collection via some paperwork she filled out on tour.
For Russell, always being herself means always bettering herself. “I never ever saw her take any kind of a short cut,” says Carillo, who roomed with Russell the year she won her Wimbledon title. She was always looking for a coach who could give her one more thing. After Boys retired, Russell found the world-class Lenny Scheuermann in Baltimore, who gave her better footwork, better groundstrokes. Even now, she teases Vaughan she won’t return to Linville unless he gives her lessons on her forehand or some other skill she decides she needs help with. He does.
“You get older, you better know some strategy, because you’re not gonna overpower a younger player, you’re not gonna outlast a younger player,” Russell says. “I mean, I’m very fit, but so what? If somebody’s 30 and I’m 60, it’s not happening. I mean, maybe if you’re really bad.”
She recently became an authorized provider for cardio tennis so she can offer classes in Linville, as Ardenfriend-Samotin does at Grey Oaks. She’s taking Spanish lessons from her neighbor. She’s also learned—and taken quite a liking to—tennis’ fast-growing cousin, pickleball. Grey Oaks requested that she learn, and two weeks later she won a local tournament. Now she’s just as likely to be found playing on a pickleball court as a tennis court, and just as often trying to convince skeptics how fun it is.
Maybe Sylvia Hanika would want to play.