What are the four major issues in tennis as we approach the fourth and final major of the season? The Grand Stories, written by Steve Tignor and Peter Bodo:
“It just feels like we’re adding nuts and whipped cream and cherries to our great career. We said that a few years ago: If we retire today, we feel like we’ve done it all. Let’s go have some fun and add to whatever it is.”
Those words were spoken by Bob Bryan at Wimbledon last month, a few minutes after he had teamed with his twin brother, Mike, to win their record 15th Grand Slam title. The victory also capped the “Golden Bryan Slam”—over the course of 12 months, Bob and Mike had won all four majors as well as an Olympic gold medal. That’s some pretty rich “whipped cream” to plop on top of a career.
Starting next week, the 35-year-olds—Mike is two minutes older, Bob 3 cm taller—will try to add yet another cherry to their towering sundae. It’s a juicy one, too. If the Bryans triumph at the U.S. Open, they’ll become the first men’s team in the Open era, and just the second all time, to win a calendar-year Grand Slam. The only other team to do it were Aussies Ken McGregor and Frank Sedgman, back in 1951 (McGregor and Sedgman almost did it two times in a row; their streak of seven straight Slams came to an end at the Open in ’52.)
The Bros, as their father and first coach, Wayne, calls them, claim they’ll be just as loose as ever at the Open, which they’ve already won four times. They won’t have to worry about their rankings, anyway. Last week, with their title in Cincinnati, they clinched the year-end No. 1 spot for the ninth time in 11 years. It’s the earliest the top ranking has ever been locked up. Talk about academic: The Bryans, who have amassed a colossal 14,285 rankings points at the moment, are 7,000 ahead in the 2013 race.
“[Finishing No. 1] is always our ultimate goal starting out each season,” said Bob, making the accomplishment sound like business as usual, “and this will give us great confidence going into New York.”
The Bryans have more majors than any other male team, and more titles overall, with 92. The calendar-year Slam is something that none of the other legendary duos of the past—Newcombe-Roche, Hewitt-McMillan, McEnroe-Fleming, the Woodies—have pulled off. Still, it’s tough to say that the Bros are the best team of all time. In the old days all the best singles players also signed up for the doubles. Newcombe and Roche had to contend with Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, among other Hall of Famers. Bob and Mike haven’t had to go toe to toe with their equivalents, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and their fellow members of the singles Top 10. At the moment, the second-best doubles team in the world is Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares. Have you heard of them? Have the Bryans heard of them?
This not the Bryans fault, of course. They can only beat the players across the net from them, and they’ve beaten them all for more than a decade. To me, even if a calendar Slam doesn’t cap off a greatest-ever career, it will be a fitting reward for two exemplary professionals. Bob and Mike haven’t just been champs; they’ve been all the things we want American tennis players to be.
On court, they’re entertainers as well as players, an act as much as a team. The fact that they’re identical twins gives them the ultimate built-in uniform. Since their college days, they’ve been crowd-pleasers. Their trademark chest bump began when they were at Stanford. “The fraternity guys were calling for it,” according to Mike. “They called it the Bryan Bump. We kept doing it.” When we moan that today’s tennis players are boring, the Bryans, who are never aloof, have shown that you can have a little fun with your success, and give the audience a show along the way. Even after 15 years, nobody fills an out-of-the-way side court with energy the way they do.
It’s the same off court. The two are always ready for interviews and photo shoots, always up to promote tennis and doubles, along with themselves. They’ve spent years playing in front of sparse crowds, doing their work in the shadows of the singles players, and living as second-class citizens on tour. They’ve always known that playing and winning at doubles isn’t enough; they need to do what they can to keep their version of the sport alive.
The Bryans don’t stop with promoting men’s tennis. One of my favorite moments of last season came at the U.S. Open, when Bob played mixed with his friend Kim Clijsters in her final professional match—chest bump included. After their defeat, he said he felt “horrible” because he had “blown it,” then praised her as a “legend” in a heartfelt tribute speech. His words came at the same time that other male players were complaining about women getting the same prize money as the men at the majors. It was heartening, in that rancorous atmosphere, to see Bob embrace and praise a member of the WTA.
Whatever the Bryans may say, there are going to be some nerves involved over the next two weeks. These are the same guys who admitted that their stomachs felt like washing machines, tumbling over and over, before they went out to try to clinch the 2007 Davis Cup for the USA. They won that day, of course; they’ve won every title in the sport. If they win the biggest and rarest of them all, the Grand Slam, it will be a cherry on top not just for Bob and Mike, but for tennis as a whole.