By BRENT STUBBS
Senior Sports Reporter
AFTER sitting out last year, Grand Bahamian Larikah Russell is already in town and preparing to regain her No.1 spot in the women’s division of the Bahamas Lawn Tennis Association.
Russell, 27, will be among the field of players competing in the BLTA’s Giorgio Baldacci Battle of the Elite Players Open Nationals Challenge that is slated to take place at the National Tennis Center next week. She is training with long-time friend Nikkita Fountain, whom she will also team up with to play doubles that will be offered for the first time this year.
“I’m pretty excited to be playing this year, considering that I didn’t play last year,” Russell said. “I’m excited to play against the girls to see where their level is at because I know they have been playing a lot. So it will be good to see where my level is against them. So I’m pretty excited and I know it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
In recent times, Russell participated in her second love as she helped the Katty Boutique Katz take the Bahamas Softball Federation’s Women’s National Softball Championship crown to Grand Bahama. Russell, the talented shortstop, was also named the most valuable player as she carted off a number of individual trophies.
Back in tennis, Russell will be playing in a tournament for the first time since March. But she’s confident that she can shake off the cob webs and be ready to play at a high level.
“I would have liked to be playing in more tournaments, but I feel I’m hitting the ball pretty well,” said Russell, who coaches tennis full time when she’s not playing. “I have nothing to lose. I’m just going to go out there and give it 100 per cent and have fun.”
Russell, however, is not underestimating any of her opponents.
“I think everyone is a challenge. I never take any opponent lightly,” she said. “I just have to go out there and give it 100 per cent and see how it goes. The girls are all playing pretty well, especially the young ones coming up. I’m just excited to see the level that I’m at, so I’m excited to be playing against them.”
And with the tournament being held in memory of Baldacci, Russell said she’s elated to know that “they are honouring him.”
“He has contributed a lot to tennis, especially to me. He was like one of my mentors. He was one of the coolest coaches I ever had. We had a pretty good relationship, so I’m pretty excited that they considered to have the tournament on his name.”
And with doubles on the agenda this year, Russell said there’s nobody else she would team up with than Fountain, whom she played on a number of national teams, including Fed Cup with Baldacci as their coach.
“We’re excited about that. When we heard that they were having doubles, we knew that we would end up playing together,” she said. “We suit each other pretty well. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We complement each other well. So we should be tough to reckon with. We’re just waiting to see how the other teams stack up. But we’re not worried about anything. We’re just going to go out there and have fun and enjoy the experience of playing together again at home.”
The last time the two were paired together was at the Bahamas Open Women’s Tennis Tournament that was held in March at the NTC. The duo played for the second straight year in doubles in the biggest international tournament for women to be played in the Bahamas.
Fountain, 28, was third behind defending champion Simone Pratt and runner-up Kerrie Cartwright in singles last year. She is looking forward to this year’s tournament, but her focus will be on doubles more than singles.
“I think I’m more excited and hoping that we have sufficient teams so that we can play doubles,” she said. “Singles is not really something that I look forward to. I’m a little older now, so I’m more excited about the doubles.”
As doubles partners since they were juniors, Fountain said whenever they get the opportunity to be paired together, they take advantage of it.
“It’s always fun for us to play together. It’s a natural thing,” she said. “Whenever we hit the court, it’s a lot of fun.”
And as a member of the BLTA’s executive team that is headed by president Derron Donaldson, Fountain said they have made it mandatory for all of the elite players, especially if they are on subvention, to come home and participate in the tournament this year.
“So I think everybody is coimng home to play, which is important because the format this year will allow the players to play for national rankings and selection to the national teams like Davis Cup and Fed Cup,” she said. “So I think it will force the players to come out and compete. This is really going to make it that much more competitive.”
Like Russell, Fountain will also be playing with a heavy heart as she dedicates her performance to the late Baldacci, who was one of her major benefactors, mentor and coach.
“This one is for Giorgio,” Fountain said.