Tennis: Bryan twins are natural double act
By John Branch
Monday, July 2, 2007
Bob threw the first punch. That is one way he is different from his identical twin and doubles partner, Mike. Bob always throws the first punch.
It was a year ago, in the back seat of a car, after the world's best doubles team needed extra games in the fifth set to beat an unseeded team in the first round. One of the Bryans insulted the other. The other fired back. Bob threw a punch.
At their rented flat, Mike mule-kicked - that is their term - Bob in the ribs. Bob smashed one of Mike's guitars against the wall.
They laughed - together, of course - at the memory.
"It cleanses you," Bob said.
"We were eating dinner together five minutes later," Mike added.
They have been together 29 years, since the moment Bob emerged two minutes after Mike. They do not like to be apart, and have no plans to be apart, even during those feisty, private moments when one lashes out at the other.
They share everything. Three houses. An e-mail account.
Hotel rooms. Meals. Postmatch ice baths.
Prize money. Inside jokes. Nearly every minute of their days.
They have won five Grand Slam titles, including four of the last seven. They have been ranked No. 1 in the world for most of the past three years, and are 11-1 in Davis Cup matches for the United States.
They completed their career Grand Slam last year at Wimbledon, fueled by the near-upset and the skirmish that followed. They returned a year older, but have grown no further apart.
They were having breakfast on the patio at Giraffe, a little chain restaurant in the center of Wimbledon Village, next to the Thai restaurant where the Bryans eat every night, which is part of their vast library of superstitions.
They were talking about their many similarities, which are obvious, and their few differences, which are not. As they talked and finished each other's sentences and one picked food from the other's plate, it called to mind the alliterative clue that some use to tell them apart. Bob wears beads. Mike has moles, below his left ear.
Each ordered something called "Good Morning Brekkie," an English-style breakfast with eggs, bacon, beans, and toast.
"Let's get smoothies," Mike said.
Bob got a Groovy Muesli. Mike got a Giddy Giraffe. So that was different.
At dinner, Bob gets red curry. Mike gets green curry. Different.
In their band, Bob plays keyboards. Mike plays drums and guitar.
At the mall, Bob likes to go to the Apple store. Mike heads to GNC which sells nutritional supplements. Different.
In their minds, Bob is more creative. Mike is more analytical. Different.
On the court, Bob looks like Mike standing before a mirror. Well, kind of different.
They play wearing identical shoes, socks, shorts, shirts, and hats from Adidas. Bob plays left-handed and wears a sweatband on his left wrist and a watch on his right. Mike plays right-handed and wears a sweatband on his right wrist and a watch on his left.
Their coach, David Macpherson, says that Bob has the "premier serve on the doubles tour." Mike, he said, has the premier return. Different, but symbiotic.
Doubles is tennis in fast-forward. The Bryans have the same tap-dance bounce before points to keep loose, then they crouch almost simultaneously and identically. Their movements are so alike they almost look choreographed.
Their voices are so much alike that their parents cannot tell them apart on the phone. Their haircuts are the same. Their gestures are the same. They like the same music. They like the same sports teams: Lakers, Dodgers, Raiders.
As they dissect their personalities, it is obvious: The Bryans are more proud of their similarities than their differences.
"That's where being twins is a little different than being brothers," one of them said. (Beads, Bob. It was Bob.) "You don't get sick of each other. And twins don't hold grudges."
They shared a bedroom growing up in California. When they went to Stanford, assigned to different rooms, they were miserable. After a month, Bob put a mattress on the floor of Mike's room. They have rarely been apart since.
At the end of the 2000 season, after two years of playing professionally at doubles and singles - Bob reached a ranking of 116, Mike, 246 - they re-evaluated their careers. And they decided they were better together than alone.
"It wasn't very fun to be just mediocre at both," Bob said. "I'd rather be No. 1 in the world in doubles than be 30th in the world in singles."
They won their first Grand Slam title at the French Open in 2003, when they ate at the same Chinese restaurant for 29 nights in a row.
(Other superstitions: On court, Mike always sits in the chair farthest from the umpire; in the Wimbledon locker room, Mike always uses the back-left shower, and Bob uses the second one from the end.)
Doubles has long filled a useful niche in tournament tennis. Its fields are filled with well-known singles players toying with doubles between matches, and veterans extending their careers. Of the 12 players on the top six doubles teams, the Bryans are the youngest.
At Wimbledon, the defending singles champion, Roger Federer, received a Center Court welcome in the first round; the Bryans opened their title defense (with an easy victory this time) on Court 19. The singles champion will receive about $1.4 million; the top doubles team will split about $450,000.
The Bryans have not regretted the singular pursuit of doubles. It has paid them handsomely (more than $4 million in career money each) and kept them together.
Minutes before they arrived at Giraffe, Andy Roddick walked in. A woman on the sidewalk gawked. A man rushed out of the restaurant and excitedly called a friend. Another came out smiling, staring at the cellphone photograph he had snapped of the world's third-ranked player.
The Bryans, who have known Roddick since childhood, stepped inside and chatted with him, comfortably trading smart-aleck remarks, the kind the two often fling at each other. Then they went back out to a table on the sidewalk patio, where they caused no commotion.
"We have the perfect niche," Mike said. "We're recognized at all tennis tournaments, but we don't have the burden like Andy. He's doing an hour of press every match. He has to explain every loss. He gets hounded at every club."
Bob added: "At airports, people constantly come up and ask him for pictures. They want a piece of him. You can tell he sometimes wants it to be different."
The Bryans are not sure how long they will play. Maybe four or five more years, they said, agreeing that the best way to go out would be with a "Wimby," as Mike called it.
"I don't want to fall back into the pack," he said.
They talked about living on the same street, having kids who will play together and be best friends. Then they argued over whose kids would beat up the other's kids. And they laughed.
And as they walked down the street, on a path they hope leads to another championship this week, they pondered another plan: maybe one big house, where everyone can be together.