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Twenty years ago, the Bryan brothers broke through at Roland Garros
The twins trace the oral history of their first win in Paris, two decades after the first of their record 16 Grand Slam wins as a pair.
Published Jun 10, 2023
FLASHBACK: The Bryan brothers won the last title of their careers in Delray Beach in 2020.
The turbulence was heavy on the short flight from Paris to London. But as the plane rocked back and forth on this June 2003 day, 25-year-old Mike Bryan figured that if his time had come, then so be it.
The way Mike saw it, there was good news. He and his flight mate, twin brother Bob Bryan, had at last won their first Grand Slam title after a six-match run through Roland Garros. Even better was that, at last, the brothers had shown Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe that they had the goods to represent the United States. “That was their lifelong dream,” says their father, Wayne Bryan. “They wanted to play together for their country.”
Besides, both brothers also knew that the real volatility had come many weeks earlier—a battle even fought, literally, on the ground.
Soon enough, the flight landed safely in London.
By the spring of 2003, the Bryan brothers had won nine titles together and established themselves as one of the best doubles teams in the world. “We’d beaten a lot of top teams,” recalls Mike, “but we were still looking for that breakthrough.”
There’d also been frustration. At Indian Wells, the prestigious tournament based in their native Southern California, Bob had served for the title, but the Bryans had ended up losing. Another tough loss came at the next tour stop, in the semis of Miami.
“We weren’t closing the door on matches,” says Bob, who this spring was named the U.S. Davis Cup captain. “We’d be up a break and go into cruise control mode. We had those heartbreaking losses. It was brutal.”
Things came to a head soon after. Practicing at Sherwood Country Club, a facility just east of their home base in Camarillo, Calif., the twins felt edgy. All the pressure of expectations–big titles, Grand Slams, Davis Cup–expressed itself. “We had a bad twin practice where we got on each other’s nerves,” says Mike. Someone got hit with a ball, and from there matters escalated.
“And we just lost it on each other,” says Bob. It was quite a sight, two young men wrestling on the lawns of a subdued country club.
But out of that chaos came innovation. Mike says it was his idea. He also thinks it might have come from their coach, Philip Farmer. Bob’s not sure where it came from, or from whom. As the saying goes, success has many parents.
It was an idea both simple and revolutionary: Relocate the left-handed Bob to the deuce court. Tradition held that the lefty received in the ad-court—all the better to crack a crosscourt forehand and angle the tricky inside-out backhand. Such lefty greats as John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Tony Roche and Mark Woodforde had all occupied the ad-court to great success. But everything from technique to strings to racquets had changed the paradigm. “We both liked hitting inside-out forehands,” says Mike. “Bob learned a deadly backhand lob in the deuce court. And then, when I returned, there was Bob in the middle with his forehand volley.”
Armed with a new approach, off the Bryans went to Europe. Though they’d built their games on California’s fast hard courts, clay was an even better fit. “It gave us more time to get into the points,” says Mike, “and then we could use our groundstrokes and shot variety to expose teams and their weaknesses.”
A title run in Barcelona was their tenth, tying them with fellow twins Tim and Tom Gullikson for the most won by a brother duo. Bob and Mike knew how much that record meant to the Gulliksons–particularly in the wake of Tim’s death in 1996—and felt ambivalent about breaking it. Their mother, Kathy, a former world-class player who’d coached the boys alongside Wayne, offered these assuring words: “If any sibling duo was going to break Tim and Tom’s record, they’d want it to be you two.”
Then came an opening loss in Rome, followed by a semifinal effort in Hamburg. “We felt we were right there,” says Mike. Arriving in Paris a week prior to Roland Garros, the two hunkered down. “We didn’t deserve to be at the big hotel,” says Bob, “so we stayed at the hotel where the juniors stayed.” They also stumbled into a nearby Chinese restaurant that proved a good luck charm – 21 straight nights of dumplings, chow mein and fried rice. Each morning their aunt, Hortensia, would also bring them scrambled eggs.
They also brought a new attitude to competing. “We were rabid once we got up a break,” says Bob. “We were so focused and intent on getting another.” That quest was aided by the new return formation, be it Bob ripping inside-out forehands from the deuce court or Mike striking bullets off both sides in the ad court.
After winning their opener versus Albert Portas and Tommy Robredo, all that increased intensity came in handy during the next two matches versus a pair of formidable all-French duos: Julien Benneteau and Nicolas Mahut, and Arnaud Clement and Nicolas Escude. Completely shutting down the partisan crowd, Bob and Mike surrendered just eight games in four sets. Two more straight-set wins put them in their first Grand Slam final – and a first-ever appearance on Court Philippe-Chatrier. Adding to the plot line was that one of their next opponents was Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the man who’d also been 50% of the reason for those earlier tough losses at Indian Wells and Rome.
As you might expect from a pair of 25-year-old men about to play the biggest match of their lives, the twins could barely sleep the night before the final.
“The clock was crawling,” says Bob. “Maybe we slept 30 minutes each.”
Prior to the match, the brothers each wrote the word “Tim” on their shoes. “They so admired Tim and were very sad when he died,” says Wayne. Mike and Bob were also aware that 10 years earlier, another brother duo they’d long looked up to—Luke and Murphy Jensen—had won the title at Roland Garros.
As the match got underway, past rapidly gave way to present. Navigating their way through a tiebreak in the first set versus Kafelnikov and Paul Haarhuis, now halfway home to Slam glory, the flame within each grew. Serving down 2-3 in the second, the two caught fire, and won 16 points in a row.
And then Bob and Mike did something they’d never done prior, and would never repeat.
“We both fell to our knees like Borg at Wimbledon,” says Bob. “We just crumpled to the ground in disbelief.”
That evening, the two declined to eat at the local Chinese restaurant and instead celebrated on the Champs Elysee, this night one marked by zero sleep. Off it was the next morning for a photo shoot. “We were running on adrenaline,” says Mike.
Continuing the synchronicity of the Jensens in 1993 and their own win in 2003, Bob and Mike won their second Roland Garros title in 2013. But this year of 2023, no brother duo remains in the Roland Garros doubles draw.
Besides the two titles at Roland Garros, the brothers won three at Wimbledon, five at the US Open, six at the Australian Open–a tally of 16 that is more than any men’s team in tennis history.
Looking back on it all, Mike says: “That was the final breakthrough. The first one is pretty sweet. It gives you the confidence to know you have the formula to handle the pressure on the big stage.”