Re: C'mon boys, get the career slam at Wimbledon!
A Dream Within Reach
By Richard Pagliaro
Strawberries and dreams have been inspiring ingredients in a nourishing tennis taste ever since the
Bryan brothers first stepped on a court. But unlike the singular sights of many of their contemporaries, twins Mike and Bob Bryan's dreams were always conceived in doubles vision.
"Most kids growing up playing tennis want to win Grand Slam [tournament] titles and be No. 1 in the world in singles," says father Wayne Bryan, a two-time World TeamTennis coach of the year, who along with his wife, Kathy, served as the twins' first coach at the Cabrillo Racquet Club near their home in Camarillo, Calif. "Truth be told, Mike and Bob's primary goal as 6-year-olds was to win all four Grand Slam [events] as a doubles team, be No. 1 in the world in doubles and help the U.S. team win the Davis Cup. Those have always been their tennis dreams."
Seeds of those dreams were rooted in the strawberry capital of the country (Camarillo is a farming community in Ventura County, the largest strawberry producer in the nation), and when the boys began to wonder what it was like to play in tennis's top strawberry-flavored field, Wimbledon, they needed to look no further than the family tree for answers. Mother Kathy Bryan (formerly Kathy Blake) played Wimbledon four times, reaching the mixed doubles quarterfinals in 1965.
"Wimbledon was always a very big deal for us growing up," Mike, the older Bryan brother by two minutes, says. "My mom talked about it and the tradition of Wimbledon. Growing up, Wimbledon, 'The Big W,' is the one we really set our sights on."
The Bryans will arrive on the most prestigious patch of grass in tennis this month to continue their quest to capture the only Grand Slam silverware absent from their championship collection: Wimbledon's Gentlemen's Doubles Trophy.
"Everyone knows how important Wimbledon is; even people who don't know tennis know that word and what it means," says Bob, the taller Bryan by one inch at 6-foot-4. "Every time I walk out on the court at Wimbledon, I get chills. So that tells you how big Wimbledon is to us. ... It's very important."
The grass court Grand Slam represents another major milestone for the reigning U.S. Open and Australian Open champions, who established an Open Era record by reaching their sixth consecutive Grand Slam tournament doubles final at Roland Garros where they bowed to Jonas Bjorkman and Max Mirnyi, the team that has succeeded them as the top-ranked tandem in the ATP doubles rankings, 6-7(5), 6-4, 7-5.
Historically, a single-season sweep of all four major doubles titles has been a rarer occurrence than a calendar- year Slam singles sweep. In 1951, Australian Hall of Famers Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor mastered all four majors, completing the doubles Grand Slam by holding off Don Candy and Mervyn Rose, 10-8, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, at Forest Hills. It's a feat that has never been duplicated. The doubles teams to complete career Grand Slams in the past half-century include the greatest duos in the history of the sport: Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis, John Newcombe and Tony Roche and Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall. (Sweden's Anders Jarryd and Jonas Bjorkman have each captured career Grand Slams, although not with a single partner.)
Winning Wimbledon and the Davis Cup are the primary goals for the Bryans, who have spent recent years racking up wins as routinely as they add new tunes to the set list for the Bryan Brothers Band, which regularly plays charity events and tournament player parties. The world's top-ranked doubles team in two of the past three years, the Bryans claimed their first major with a 2003 Roland Garros win over the team of Paul Haarhuis and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. They are the first team to earn the International Tennis Federation's World Doubles Champions honors for three consecutive years. They have also claimed the Tennis Masters Cup crown in two of the past three years and became the second team in 50 years to reach all four major finals in 2005, joining India's Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes who accomplished the feat in 1999.
In fact, the Bryans' U.S. Open triumph enabled them to escape the ignominious distinction of becoming the first doubles team to attain what they called "the anti-Slam," losing in four Grand Slam finals in one year. Playing perhaps their finest final, hurling their bodies around the court in purposeful pursuit of shots, the Bryans crushed the top-seeded tandem of Bjorkman and Mirnyi, 6-1, 6-4, to claim their first U.S. Open championship. The Bryans seized their second straight major title this past January, defeating Paes and Martin Damm, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, in the Australian Open final and earned profuse praise from tournament director Paul McNamee for generating much-needed electricity on the Oz Open's final Saturday night, following Justine Henin-Hardenne pulling the plug on the women's final by abruptly retiring from her match with Amelie Mauresmo.
It's no coincidence that the Bryans' best Grand Slam showings have come at the majors where crowds are most vocal. Tennis typically isn't a contact sport, unless the Bryan brothers happen to be the ones playing it. The twins' leaping chest bumps sometimes elicit standing ovations from American crowds, and the Bryans believe they are at their best when embraced by the crowd.
"We definitely play our best tennis when we're jacked up and we bring the crowd into it and we can feel their energy," Bob says. "We have a lot of energy, we like to jump around, and doubles is quick and explosive so we feed off that. That's why I think we play our best tennis in Davis Cup because we come out so pumped and jacked and we let the crowd carry us sometimes. The less atmosphere there is, the worse we play. That's why we like playing at the U.S. and Australian opens because our matches are packed and the crowd gets into it. At Wimbledon, we haven't had our best results — two semis and a final — but it would be nice if the fans can get into it more. We play on the stadium court and it's a little more quiet, a little more traditional and a little bit more respectful. We don't get a standing ovation when we throw a chest bump on Centre Court at Wimbledon."
Though the Wimbledon bowl has been the forbidden fruit in the Bryans' growing Grand Slam garden of silver, they have had success on grass, winning three Queen's Club crowns and reigning on the historic grass court grounds of Newport twice. U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, who has experienced the Bryans' enthusiasm during Davis Cup, says the Bryans' best surface is "any surface with lines," and suggests they amplify their activity level at the All England Club.
"Grass court doubles can be a bit of a crap shoot because the points can be so quick," says McEnroe, the 1989 French Open doubles champ (with Jim Grabb). "What can really get the Bryans going are those energy shots where they make a great get or a tremendous stab volley or they win a longer rally with an athletic play. So I think they may have to work a little bit harder to get the energy going at Wimbledon because the nature of grass court doubles is more about making a solid return and a good first volley. I would like to see them be just as energetic and emotional as they are at the U.S. Open. Obviously, Wimbledon is more of a traditional atmosphere, but I would encourage them to play the high-energy style they play so well and I think the fans will respond."
Anyway, the Bryans are not the type to be bound by tradition. Typically, many of the most successful righty-lefty doubles partnerships in history — Newcombe and Roche, Neale Fraser and Roy Emerson, John McEnroe and Peter Fleming and the Woodies — have played with the left-hander on the ad side. The Bryans, who both possess powerful inside-out forehands, play an opposite formation, with left-handed Bob on the deuce side and right-handed Mike on the ad side.
"There's pros and cons to both ways," says the twins' coach, David MacPherson, who has helped guide the brothers to this year's 34-8 record following their runner-up finish at Roland Garros. "The pros are that at net they can really reach out with their forehand volleys for a little more range, and while traditionally, you would try to serve wide to a lefty's backhand on the deuce side, the boys are so quick with their feet they can get around their backhands and use their forehand side to return. Obviously, Bob has the premier doubles serve in the game and Mike is the premier doubles returner in the game, and they're both right up there with the great doubles players of all time with what they can do with their second shots. Though they haven't won Wimbledon yet, they've got a good record; it's a matter of everything falling into the right place at the right time."
Chip and charge doubles ruled Wimbledon in the wood racquet era and the Bryan brothers' crush and rush style of play enables them to break open a point quickly. So why haven't they broken through at Wimbledon?
"If you look at it from the outside, the way the Bryan brothers play, combined with the fact they've won all the other majors and they've been so successful at Queen's Club on grass, it is a surprise they haven't won Wimbledon yet," says Australian doubles standout Owen Davidson, who swept the mixed doubles Grand Slam in 1967, won the 1972 Oz Open with Rosewall and partnered Newcombe to win the 1973 U.S. Open. "You would think they would win on the faster grass surfaces where they can take control. On the other hand, when you think it through, their flexibility, the diversity of shot, is a little bit suspect and flexibility is extremely important on grass where the ball shoots through so quickly. On clay and on hard courts, you've got enough time to bang away from the back, but on grass where it's faster, you can get trapped if you've got to make the big grip change and if you don't have the versatility of shot."
Versatility was a key component in the extended Wimbledon run of the Woodies, who won six Wimbledon titles. While the concept of the Bryan brothers adopting a finesse style of play at Wimbledon seems to make as much sense as the prospect of the British Royal Guard taking a break from patrolling Buckingham Palace to join the Bryan brothers on backing vocals for an impromptu version of the Clash classic "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" working with MacPherson may well broaden the brothers' approach to point construction on the All England Club lawns.
"It was a little bit of a surprise that the Bryans hired an Aussie coach," Davidson says, "but I've watched David MacPherson and the Bryans practice together, and they work very hard and David's enthusiasm on the court — like the Bryans' enthusiasm — is terrific. So he is very helpful to them. Interestingly, David didn't have much power as a player. He wasn't very big so he couldn't overpower opponents. But on the other hand, he had a lot of versatility and a lot of shots and could think his way through points. So when you match the Bryans' power and athleticism with David's versatility and different ideas of how to play points, it's a good match and a good team of coach and players each bringing different strengths."
A year after they fell to qualifiers Stephen Huss and Wesley Moodie in the 2005 Wimbledon final, the twins return to Wimbledon with an appetite for more than strawberries and the opportunity to fulfill a life-long dream.
"Since we won the Australian Open we've been asked about winning the career Grand Slam and of course we've thought about it," Mike admits. "We'd love to win them all. In doubles, the margins are so tight and so many things have to go your way. It's not easy, but we're definitely going to give it our best shot."