Chest Bumping the Gods

Friday, July 05, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Bob and Mike Bryan stand perched on the doorstep of history as they try to become the first doubles team to hold all four Grand Slam titles, and the Olympic gold medal, at the same time. These days, the Bryans stand toes to that portal more often than door-to-door salesmen.

To secure the honor, the Bryans must beat the relatively new pairing of Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo, and the Bryans aren’t taking anything for granted. They know how doubles works, at every level including the emotional, the way a NASCAR pit boss knows how the internal combustion engine functions.

“When you play a new team, sometimes you're playing guys during kind of their honeymoon period—where they're excited, and they haven't had any adversity in their career yet,” Bob Bryan said after the 35-year-old twins won their semifinal at Wimbledon on the Fourth of July. “They haven't had, you know, tough losses. Everything is fresh and new. They're swinging for the fences.”

Nevertheless, the Bryans are heading into the final against the No. 12 seeds with fearsome momentum. They’re on a 23-match winning streak, have collected eight titles—including two Grand Slams—in 10 tournaments this season, have earned more prize money already this year than in all of 2012, and in the semis wasted a fourth-set match point but survived a lengthy and brutal five-set shootout with Rohan Bopanna and Edouard Roger-Vasselin.

Only one team in the history of tennis has completed a calendar-year Grand Slam, and that was way back before the Open era. Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor, a brace of Aussies, achieved it in 1951. It was part of an astonishing run of seven straight majors for the team. Now, with the first two legs of the Grand Slam secured, the Bryans are a threat to chest bump the gods by holding all four majors at once and perhaps even duplicating Sedgman and McGregor’s singular feat.

But even if they don’t accomplish that purist’s Grand Slam in September in New York, completing the watered-down, non-calendar version will constitute an Open-era watershed moment. And even more so, with their Olympic gold medal rounding out the collection. A “Bryan's Golden Slam” may sound like a 3,000-calorie something you find on the menu of a fast-food food restaurant, but as Mike Bryan said: “I don't know what you want to call it, but it's pretty cool.”

The Bryans already have more Grand Slam doubles titles (14) than any Open era team, and they’ve finished as the ATP’s No. 1 doubles team eight times. Their record is extraordinary, but then so is their genetic mapping, and it seems to play a significant role in their success.

The Bryans are "mirror twins," more or less reflective of each other. The most obvious manifestation of this is that Mike is right-handed and the Bob left-handed. Only about one percent of infants are “monozygotic” (identical) twins. And only 25 percent of monozygotic twins are "mirror" or opposite- feature twins. For our purposes, the slim odds that produced the Bryans and that lefty-righty pre-disposition translates to terrific court coverage in doubles.

The Bryans play a straightforward brand of power tennis. Even in style, the “twins” effect is pronounced, and it differentiates them from their rivals. Watching  the Bryans side of the court during a doubles match, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a singles match but still suffering the after effects of a night on the town. It’s like having double vision.

Sure, you can nit-pick certain things one does better than the other—Mike is a better returner, Bob owns a more threatening serve; Bob’s forehand is bigger, but Mike’s hands are quicker and “softer” around the net—but the basic similarity is amazing as well as highly useful. Just who or what do you attack when both Bryans are powerfully built, tall (although at 6'4" Bob is an inch taller) serving-and-volleying machines, and they both play one-handed backhands with their forehand volleys to the middle?

Over the past decade and a half, the Bryans have continually built on the formidable foundation of their meat-and-potatoes style as well as their biologically determined advantages.

The Bryans have been very careful to safeguard their advantage. After they blew a chance to end their semifinal an hour earlier than they ultimately did the other day, the twins were particularly happy about how well they suppressed any impulse to point fingers at each other.

“It would have been very easy to make a couple of snipey comments to each other, which could have kind of unraveled the vibe,” Bob remarked in the presser afterward. “We did a great job of collecting ourselves and not saying anything, which we tend to do in those moments. It's sometimes better not to talk. Because as brothers and twins, you don't want to be coached by your sibling.”

“Ever,” Mike chimed in.

“Ever,” Bob repeated, with emphasis.

Bob believes that no ordinary sibling relationship could bear up to the stress and strain of what a successful doubles team goes through in the long term. He thinks only twins can “stand the test of time” in that way.

As Bob poignantly explained, it’s a real asset to know, after a heartbreaking loss, that your partner isn’t going to be looking around for a new partner. “No matter how bad I return during a stretch, I know Mike’s not going to be talking to (doubles specialist Daniel) Nestor, and texting Nestor.”

The Bryans have many advantages, but being twins is the only one that’s God-given. For these extraordinary doubles champions (just savor the hyper-natural symmetry of athletically gifted individuals who happen to be twins playing the only really two-player game on our radar) also have worked extremely hard to build upon ever success and to keep improving. You can begin to tick off their skills and habits with perhaps the least spectacular of them, the fact that they always show up.

We all know that doubles has always been relegated to the back seat, behind singles tennis. The doubles player’s lot—and it’s true for even the best of them—is to walk out there after 10 or 11 pm, after a knockout singles match has just ended, and a crowd of 10 or 12 thousand has dwindled down to barely enough people to fill a lifeboat. That happens, even at Grand Slam events. Yet the Bryans never, ever, let down their guard, lose their enthusiasm, or settle for just mailing one in.

Despite their success, the twins also have remained intensely focused students of the game. They’re good enough to make a terrific living without chasing betterment or further records, yet they constantly have their noses poked under the hood of the game. Just read how Bob elaborated on his comments (above) about Dodig and Melo:

“New combinations do well right away sometimes. (Teams) also do well when they say they're going to retire, or they're going to split. That's when you see the teams also have a run. Usually we have a long history of game plans with the established teams. When a new team comes together, you really have to watch some tape and figure out what they're doing different.”

That’s due diligence, and it’s a comment on the acute professionalism these men cultivate — a dedication to the craft that has been as important as their significant birth advantage, as well a hedge to keep that edge from becoming a liability. This year, the Bryans also decided to round out their game with a few bells and whistles. It’s not as if their brand of power doubles has become less effective. Rather, they don’t want to become predictable, or trapped in their own success. Those tweaks have helped account for their outstanding start to the year.

It all began when Mike, the more creative of the two, found himself thinking about different shots and tactics that they either never used or eliminated from their repertoire along the way. He decided jointly with Bob that they ought to experiment with some of the formations, mix it up in their poaching, and bring a few new wrinkles to their “second ball” after serve or return.

“We don’t want to hit these shots a million times,” Mike said, “Just a few times in a match, to keep some teams off balance.”

Looking ahead to the final, a jocular Bob contemplated the degree to which a Bryan brothers story these days is a story about chasing history: “If we win this one it will be, ‘Oh, do the calendar year Grand Slam.’ And then we'll be answering questions about that. When we won the (U.S.) Open last year we thought we broke the record, but it was the Open era Grand Slam record. These types of records and achievements, there's a lot of 'em.”

Given how hard they’ve been working, the Bryans have taken to indulging in the new habit embraced by so many tennis stars, the post-match ice bath.

“All the singles guys do them,” Mike quipped. “We jump right in there, too.”

I’m not so sure I’d like to hop into an ice bath with Mike or any other Bryan, but it sure is nice to have them around, forever raising the bar in doubles, gobbling up one record after another, double-handedly adding to the repute of the game so often overshadowed by singles.

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