Bob Russo has a strong handshake. As a senior athletic trainer for male players at the U.S. Open, his hands have assessed, stretched out and taped up tennis stars for 35 years.
Russo, 59, of Garden City, is tasked with one of the most important jobs of the Queens tournament: caring for a world-class athlete's health.
"You see them at their most vulnerable times, and you see them at the highlight of their achievements," Russo said. "It's emotional if you've worked so hard to get here, and you sustain an injury that puts you off from the tournament . . . There is a lot riding at the U.S. Open for everybody."
Often unsung heroes, trainers work behind the scenes -- sometimes 15-hour days -- to ensure that an athlete is "able to play at their optimum with what you have control over," Russo said. Common ailments on hard courts include lower back problems, ankle sprains and shoulder injuries, he said.
Russo, who has worked with such stars as Pete Sampras, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, served as a Davis Cup trainer for the U.S. team during the 1980s and 1990s -- earning four gold and diamond championship rings. In 2004, he was inducted into the U.S. Tennis Association's Eastern Hall of Fame.
David Brewer, the Open's tournament director, described Russo as "a player's trainer."
"He earns the trust of the players very quickly," Brewer said " . . . He gives high-fives up and down the hallway."
Russo recalled when Sampras played in the 1996 Open quarterfinal against Alex Correjta. After reaching a tiebreaker in the fifth set, Sampras had stomach cramps so strong he vomited on the court.
"Pete was in pain and really wincing . . . then somehow found a way of getting through and won that match," Russo said. "We were with him for hours after that, into the wee hours of the morning, trying to get him healthy again."
David Cooper, an internal medicine doctor who has worked with the trainer at the Open, said players often looked to Russo when they were in pain.
"They would come in and just scream for Bob . . . He's not the only trainer there, but they wanted Bob," he said. "I actually think he has healing hands . . . every time he works on somebody, they tell me that they feel like a million bucks and they're ready to get back out there."
At the peak of his career, Russo worked up to 40 weeks a year, traveling from India to England. Now, he dedicates about 10 weeks to tennis events, in between working full time at ProHEALTH Care Associates, a multi-specialty medical practice in Lake Success where Cooper is the chief executive.
What has sustained Russo through it all is a love of tennis. He grew up in Forest Hills near the West Side Tennis Club, where the U.S. Open was played for decades.
"I've actually worked this tournament every year since I've been 10 years old," he said. "I was a ball boy, then I was a locker boy."
Today, Russo is a popular fixture, bopping around the grounds with a wide smile; eager to chat or give a hug.
"A five-minute walk would take 30 minutes," Cooper said. "He's like the mayor of the U.S. Open."