Racquet Reaction

U.S. Open: Paes/Stepanek d. Bryan/Bryan

Thursday, September 05, 2013 /by
Photo by Anita Aguilar
Photo by Anita Aguilar

NEW YORK—When the Bryan brothers hand over their résumés during their perfunctory interview for the greatest doubles team of all time, an honor the 15-time major champions earned long ago, the Lords of Tennis will still be able to ask them one question: Can you explain what happened when you were going for the Grand Slam?

It is a question Bob and Mike will, in all likelihood, have the rest of their lives to contemplate. “Probably never going to have another shot at it,” Bob admitted after this afternoon’s match. The top-ranked Americans were but two wins away from one of the rarest achievements in sport, but after dominating the first set against Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek, lost on Arthur Ashe Stadium, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

The fourth-seeded pairing of the 40-year-old Indian and the Czech Republic’s Stepanek, who underwent neck surgery this January, looked like typical fodder for the favorites early on, winning just one point in the Bryans’ five service games in the opening set. The world No. 1s were in perfect sync, just like their coordinating apparel and shoes—they even matched their racquets’ yellow-and-black color schemes. They looked every bit of the team that had lost just one set at the Open heading into this semifinal.

Their opponents, on the other hand, wouldn’t have been let on Manhattan Island during Fashion Week. Paes dressed in mostly white with hot pink shoes, looking like he stepped in a puddle of strawberry taffy in Flushing Meadows Park. But that may have been the better look on the team, considering Stepanek’s garish if locally-inspired shirt featuring the Manhattan skyline. He must have left his matching New York City Subway shorts at the hotel.

But Paes and Stepanek did not win ugly. They drastically improved their returning, winning half of their receiving points in the second set—compared to a paltry five percent success rate in the first. Stepanek, who was much maligned in the ESPN2 commentary booth at the onset, rediscovered his feel as the match wore on, fortifying a strong defense and offense with Paes when joined at net.

But most importantly, the underdogs loosened up. What did they have to lose, after all, after getting flattened in the opening set by a team nearing athletic history?

Not a lot, of course, but the Bryans had plenty on the line. “We knew what was riding on this match,” Bob said afterward. And after a near-flawless first set, they seemed to tense up a bit (the Bryans flatly denied this in press), losing more of the longer rallies and giving their opponents ample opportunities to climb back in with spotty serving. Perhaps losing the first service point of the second set—as many as they’d lost a set earlier—was a sign that things could go awry, but a stronger signal was when Paes helped break the Bryans for the first time with an exquisite chip return that curved onto the doubles line.

“I went across and I could have stuck a volley,” Mike said after the match. “Leander hit a couple good chips there and we’re down a break and they’re off to the race. The momentum switched there.”

That made the score 2-0 for Paes and Stepanek, but even though they gave up the lead two games later, they regained the advantage for 4-2 after another confident and inspired break—which followed a gritty hold by Stepanek from 0-40. Two games later and the match became a best-of-one.

Second serves plagued the Bryans all day, though you wouldn’t know it from their 100 percent conversion rate in the first set (they only had to hit one). In the second set, Bob and Mike won just 36 percent of second-serve points, and that trend continued in the third, where they won just 40 percent. 

“The holds became tougher,” said Mike. “I don’t remember missing a first serve in the first set, and we were reeling off those games. Then they started clawing into our service games. When you’re serving down break points and deuce games, you know, it becomes a lot tougher and the pressure mounts. So that was probably the difference.”

Hardly a coincidence, Paes’ and Stepanek’s fine play persisted as well. The longer, volley-heavy points went their way more often than not, and serving woes again damaged the Bryans, who appeared a bit overwhelmed by the occasion. When Paes and Stepanek took a 4-1, double-break lead, they even gave each other a chest bump—a more-earthbound version than the leap popularized by their adversaries.

The celebration was not an homage to the Bryans at the time. The intensity was palpable in the second and third sets, and yells toward the opposing side were exchanged. But if there was any bitterness, it subsided after Stepanek held at love to seal the victory (all credit to him; he served out the match after Paes was broken when serving at 5-2). Paes extolled the brothers in the post-match interview, summoning the crowd to give the fallen champs an ovation.

“Thanks to Leander for those nice words. The guy is a legend,” said Bob. “We wish him luck in the finals.”

But even more poignant was what happened immediately after “Game, set, and match” was called—both teams embraced on each side of the net. Paes and Stepanek, who will play in Sunday’s final, certainly earned it. But so did Bob and Mike, the greatest doubles team of all time, who can “relax, and look at what we’ve accomplished.”

Considering all they’ve achieved, especially recently, that’s a task in itself.

IBM Stat of the Match: The Bryans went from dominating to donating on serve. Paes and Stepanek earned 10 break points in the last two sets; they didn't get a shot at breaking serve in the first.

 

IBM is a proud sponsor and official technology partner of the U.S. Open. For more information on this match, visit IBM's SlamTracker.

 

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