Bryan Brothers Remain Doubles' Dynamic Duo
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Bob and Mike Bryan won their sixth Grand Slam at the US Open in September.
By S. ALISON KIM
Published: November 7, 2008
Americans Bob and Mike Bryan could go down in history as the greatest team to play the game, but they're building more than a personal legacy. Their success, energy, and popularity on and off the court has injected ATP Doubles with renewed life.
Just weeks after winning the US Open, Bob and Mike Bryan found themselves in front of 25,000 screaming fans. But on this occasion, the twins had left their racquets at home and donned different instruments to entertain the crowd.
With Bob on keyboard and Mike on a rhythm acoustics guitar, the 30-year-old Californians rocked alongside the Counting Crows in Tampa, Florida, joining the band on stage for the song 'Hanging Around'. Midway through the song, which featured small solos for both brothers, lead singer Adam Duritz introduced Bob and Mike to the crowd, who roared their approval.
"It's been a childhood dream of ours to be rock stars and I've had dreams of playing in front of that many people," said Bob, who occasionally performs as part of the Bryan Bros. Band with Mike. "So it was great to finally become a rock star – even if it was just for six minutes."
While their musical career may be on hold for the time being, their rock star status extends beyond the concert stage to their day jobs as the world's best doubles team. And when the Bryans return to Shanghai as the top-seeded tandem at the Tennis Masters Cup, the fan favorites can expect another rousing reception.
In the past few years, the Bryans' star power – both on and off the court – has grown in tandem with the increasing popularity of ATP Doubles. The photogenic Americans have rung the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, rubbed shoulders with the likes of Oasis and Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Brit Awards, and been featured in People Magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" issue in the "Doubly Delicious" section. Their inaugural charity gala for the Bryan Brothers Foundation in September counted Andre Agassi, comedian Jon Lovitz and musician Gavin Rossdale among the entertainers.
While this celebrity can be seen as the perk of their standing as the top doubles team for much of the past six years, it is also viewed as a responsibility by the Bryans, who understand that their reputation and performance helps fuel the status of the tandem game. Mike said, "One of our big goals is to see doubles thrive. By doing well and winning a couple Grand Slams, being No. 1, it does help doubles. Fans like to see the twin dynamic out there. It makes doubles more popular."
The twins have all the makings of a dream doubles team. Left-hander Bob employs a huge first serve and a world-class forehand while right-sided Mike, older than his brother by two minutes, boasts explosive returns. They've developed an instinctual ability to read each other that they claim is incomparable on tour, and have had years of practice to sharpen their doubles skills.
"Doubles is a game where there are so many facets, so many shots you have to learn, so much strategy that it takes a long time to develop into a great doubles player," said Mike. "We've been working on doubles – not just singles – since such a young age and have developed a lot of skills that you need to be great doubles players. Overall our games really complement each other."
And whereas other players easily move on to new partners when the going gets tough, the Bryans are committed to their on-court partnership for life.
"Even if one guy is unhappy about the way a match goes, there's no question of effort," said David Macpherson, their coach of three years. "That's why they always pull together on court and they're getting better and better as they get older. They rarely look back and say they didn't focus or play well together. That's what makes them so tough – they really make opponents beat them."
Last year, the Bryans became the first team in the Open Era to finish as the No. 1 team four out of five years. Their achievements during that span include reaching seven consecutive Grand Slam finals between the 2005 Australian Open and 2006 Wimbledon, completing the career Grand Slam in 2006, and collecting a career-best 11 titles and the Davis Cup in 2007.
By their high standards, the Bryans got off to a slower start this past season. They went title-less through the first three months despite reaching four finals, marking their longest title drought to start a season since 2003. Macpherson says, "It was a frustrating time for them. Part of the psyche of being No. 1 is when you get to the final, you need to finish the job."
They finally broke through to win their first title at the ATP Masters Series tournament in Miami, then followed with wins at Barcelona, the Masters Series events at Rome and Cincinnati, the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics – which proudly hangs from the chandelier in their dining room – and their sixth Grand Slam title at the US Open.
The Bryan twins have appeared in 13 career Grand Slam finals
Heading into the Tennis Masters Cup, the Bryans have their sights set on another milestone: their teams 50th title, which would place them seven back of Peter McEnroe/John McEnroe and Bob Hewitt/Frew McMillan, and 11 shy of the all-time record held by Australians Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde. Mike said, "It's in the back of our minds that it's in reach. If we stay healthy, it's conceivable that we can catch these guys. But just to be mentioned in the same breath as the Woodies is flattering and humbling."
Macpherson, who played against both the Woodies and the Bryans during his doubles career, compared the two teams: "The similarities they have is that for a doubles team, they're very good from the baseline. Lots of tough doubles teams can be great returners and volleyers, but they don't have the consistency and power on second, third or fourth shots. The Woodies were great on forehand, and the Bryans are the same. The Bryans are all court players."
Considering that many of the best doubles players play well into their 30s, the Americans have a good shot of breaking the Woodies' record. Should they continue to win five titles a year as they have since the 2003 season, they would overtake the record by their 33rd birthdays.
But health will first need to be on their side, a factor that could be helped by the once-controversial Match Tie-break that has been embraced by players and fans alike since its introduction in 2006. Bob said, "It's saving our bodies so we'll have longer careers. It's exciting for the fans. It's caught on, and all the players are positive."
This season, the Bryans had been limited to just two tournaments following their US Open triumph (1-2 record) due to Bob's left shoulder inflammation. As a result, Mike flew solo for the first time in Davis Cup action, playing with someone other than his brother in the semifinals against Spain. It was just the fifth time in ATP-level action and the first time since 2002 that Mike had partnered a different player. (Bob hasn't played with anyone else at the ATP level.) The eight days also marked the longest time the Bryans had been apart in six years. "It felt like a piece of me was missing," joked Mike.
Prior to the match, Mike made sure to develop a different celebratory move with temporary partner Mardy Fish in order to reserve the Bryans' signature chest bump for his brother. Though Mike and Mardy ended up winning the match, they managed to try out the '180 back bump' just once in front of the Spanish crowd. "The fans hated it," Mike said with a laugh.
Chinese fans can rest assured that the trademark chest bump will be back in Shanghai, where the Bryans are looking to clinch their third Tennis Masters Cup title and become the first team to finish No. 1 for four straight years (Woodbridge and Woodforde finished No. 1 from 1995-97). In doing so, they could further augment their status as arguably the best doubles team to play the game.
"They're still going so they can rack up a few more titles to really make a genuine argument that they're the best of all time," said former college teammate and ATP pro Paul Goldstein. "It's great to have that conversation, it's fun, but I'll tell you, I'm much more proud just to be friends with them… Success hasn't changed them one bit. The same energy that they bring to the tennis courts is the same energy that they bring to their lives everyday."
It may be fitting that one of the greatest teams the sport has seen is playing at a time when doubles is on the rise. According to the twins, the game is healthier than ever with the top doubles players battling teams comprised of the best singles players, matches showcased on stadium court, and doubles packaged in a way that can sell tickets.
And in a large part, the Bryans can thank themselves for the role they've had in injecting the doubles game with heightened energy and interest.
"The in-your-face style of tennis that Bob and Mike bring to the court is so aggressive and fun to watch," said Delray Beach ITC tournament director Mark Baron. "Sometimes it's easy to overlook their greatness, and that they are on track to become the top doubles players in the history of our sport."
Mike said: "It was never our goal to be considered one of the greatest teams to ever play. You always dream of playing on the pro tour, hopefully winning Grand Slams, of being No. 1; it's achievable, but you never think you're actually going to do it… It would obviously be a thrill, but there's still a lot of tennis to be played."