What is tennis at its purest?
Watching Feliciano Lopez chip and charge at Queens Club.
Having played tennis at the district, state, and national level, tennis has taught me some invaluable life lessons. Writing helps me stay closely connected to the sport I love. ‘Tennis Gospel’ is a blog I created at age 15 and I continue to contribute to it with both opinion and analytical pieces. It would mean the world to me if you joined me on my journey as a humble student of sport at Tennis Gospel.
A glittering career that has seen the pair capture an Open Era record 118 trophies, 16 Grand Slam titles, all nine ATP Masters 1000s, four season-ending World Tour Finals and an Olympic gold medal, has cemented the status of the Bryan Brothers as the greatest doubles pairing of all-time.
After much consideration, the pair have decided that 2020 is going to be their final year on the tour, signing off with a Flushing Meadows swansong. As the mirror twins edge closer to the end of the road, let us reflect on what has been an unforgettable career so far.
The Early Days
Set apart by three minutes, Michael Carl “Mike” Bryan and Robert Charles “Bob” Bryan are identical twin brothers. What’s even more interesting is that they are mirror twins, meaning that if they face each other, they form a perfect reflection, with Bob being left-handed and Mike being right-handed.
An enviable quality for any sports pairing, regardless of whether they were to find themselves at the top of the Dodgers batting order, or covering the court at Flushing Meadows.
Born to Wayne and Kathy Bryan, the twins didn’t have to look far for sporting inspiration. Their mother, Kathy, is a former player on the women’s circuit with a career boasting four Wimbledon appearances and reaching the mixed doubles quarterfinals in 1965.
She currently works as a tennis instructor. Their father is a lawyer, musician, and also happens to be a tennis instructor.
Raising legendary tennis players was no small feat. Wayne Bryan has talked about the importance of keeping the game interesting and attractive in the eyes of the twins. He identified how playing could never be associated with a sense of drudgery or dread, or else it would become forced.
Another rather difficult aspect of raising twins to play a sport was to ensure that their competitiveness does not consume them. With the pair showing immense promise at the under-10 level, they were faced with the uncomfortable prospect of facing each other in the finals of a tournament at age eight.
It’s safe to say Wayne and Kathy devised an unusual, yet effective system to keep the harmony among the twins well and truly intact. Both the twins were made to default and the family took home the winners and runners up trophy. In the future, if the twins found themselves pitted against themselves earlier in the draw, they followed a system where they would defeat alternatively and let the other progress.
A pivotal moment presented itself in the 18-and-under national tournament. The USTA made it clear that defaulting was not an option, citing the presence of spectators that were expecting to witness some good tennis. Bob eventually edged the match in two tiebreak sets, and the twins were able to handle the moment with commendable maturity.
The Bryan Bond
Inseparable in the womb and even more so outside it, the twins have always been extremely close to each other. They emerged as top singles players as juniors as well as in college. In 1998 they won Stanford the doubles event, the team national championship, and Bob completed the trinity by taking home the NCAA singles title as well.
One would think that the subject of Bob emerging as a better singles player might have struck a sensitive chord, but much to their credit, the twins were able to be straightforward and uncomplicated about it.
They found comfort in each other’s company and spent a lot of time together. A notable anecdote from their college days at Stanford involves Bob dragging a mattress from a different dorm to Mike’s room and setting it up on the floor for the rest of the year.
The twins were anything but one-dimensional. They had a wide variety of interests off the tennis court. They shared a passion for music which led to the creation of the Bryan Brothers Band. Featuring David Baron as the lead singer, Bob on the keyboard and keyboard bass, and Mike on lead guitar and drums, the band released its debut album “Let it Rip” in 2009.
The connection shared by the pair was the key to their success. Despite coming up against teams with bigger serves and a greater abundance of talent, the chemistry between the Bryans usually helped them eke out the win.
They anticipate each other’s movements perfectly and are caught out of position very rarely. Justin Gimelstob, a player who has faced the pair on multiple occasions across his career, alludes to how little they talk to each other between points.
“Most other doubles teams would be in constant conversation between points but what the Bryans seemed to possess was almost telepathic”
Despite their strong bond, the pair did find themselves in the occasional scuffle. Tempers flared and emotions boiled over following a poor Wimbledon showing in 2006. Punches and kicks were exchanged, and Bob eventually ended up laying waste to his brother’s guitar.
Given the fact that Bob is left-handed and Mike is right-handed, the logical assumption would be that Mike would receive serve from the deuce court whereas Bob would station himself on the ad side, thus enabling a greater number of forehand returns. However, the Bryans opted for Bob to receive from the deuce court and for Mike to receive from the ad court which seemed rather unusual at first sight.
While this leaves them exposed to serves to their backhand side, their coach, David Macpherson believes that it helps Bob poach more and finish points with his swinging forehand volley.
Like most top doubles teams, the Bryan Brothers have always kept their strengths in mind. Bob is slightly taller and has a bigger serve. His flat serve down the T from the ad court is a huge weapon. Mike is the better returner and often makes low cross-court returns that make the opposition pop a volley high. Bob positions himself at the net to eat it up.
The Journey Of Two Brothers
As hard as it may be to imagine, there was a time the Bryan Brothers were starting to believe they were “one slam wonders”. After clinching their first-ever Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 2003, the twins suffered five successive losses in their next five Grand Slam finals — a run that stretched until the 2005 Wimbledon.
As the US Open approached, the pair was faced with the possibility of becoming holders of an unwanted statistic — the only doubles team to lose all four Grand Slam finals in a calendar year.
They made the finals and found a familiar foe on the other side of the net — the pairing of Jonas Bjorkman and Max Mirnyi — that had got the better of them in the French Open final earlier that year. Ghosts from the past were effectively exorcised as the Bryan Brothers, buoyed on by chats of “USA! USA!”, cruised to a comfortable straight-sets win.
A huge mental roadblock was surpassed that day and paved the way to a record-breaking 16 Grand Slam titles as a team. One slam wonders? That would make for a funny anecdote someday.
The twins were now well and truly on their way to greatness. They were starting to muster a steadily growing, loyal fanbase and were taking the tennis world by storm with their brand of doubles. The pair strengthened their individual legacies as well, winning multiple mixed doubles Grand Slam titles with a range of partners.
The most notable of these were Martina Navratilova partnering with Bob to win the 2006 US Open and Lisa Raymond partnering with Mike to win the 2012 Wimbledon title.
The leaping chest bump started to become a regular feature in matches involving the Bryan Brothers, and soon enough, became an iconic celebration that the tennis world identified the pair with. The charisma and energy that characterized the pair brought in packed crowds and massive viewership — that could only be associated with singles matches between the very best players — something the doubles tour, unfortunately, hasn’t been able to receive.
In a career that saw the pair dominate the doubles arena, one glaring hole still remained, an elusive Olympic Gold medal. Their first Olympics appearance at Athens in 2004 saw them crash out at the quarterfinal stage. A sense of complacency towards lesser-known opponents was singled out as a reason for the defeat.
Their next Olympics appearance at Beijing in 2008 saw them return home as bronze medalists. The twins remarked at how their bronze medal was received back home with a lingering sense of disappointment. They could call themselves Olympic medalists, but in a country that has dominated the Olympics for several years, Gold was the standard.
The third time proved to be the charm for the pair at the London Olympics in 2012. Taking on the French pairing of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Michael Llodra, they were able to stave off their opponents for a tight two-set win. Pure elation.
In a career filled with accomplishments, this seemed to be at the very summit. It certainly meant the most. Going on to win Wimbledon the following year meant the Bryan Brothers had just achieved something so great, it had to be named after them.
They achieved the “Golden Bryan Slam” upon being holders of all four slams as well as the Olympic Gold medal.
Trouble In Paradise
As the twins approached their late thirties, their previously unwavering bond seemed to be waning. There was cause for concern as the twins went on a run marred with uncharacteristic errors and missed opportunities. Having been so consistently clutch in key moments, it was alarming to see the pair starting to come unstuck and unraveling fast.
Little did Bob know, his brother was dealing with a divorce of the court. As a result, there was considerable emotional baggage that Mike carried onto the court.
“At some point we stopped communicating about anything off the court. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I saw stuff breaking down on the court and in practices, and tempers flaring. It was a little bit of a different Mike Bryan than I was used to.” -Bob Bryan
The twins found themselves in uncharted territory and were eventually able to maneuver their way out of it. The pair had emerged out of adversity becoming closer than ever before, with Mike moving in with Bob and camping in his daughter’s bedroom.
With a sparring partner now just a few steps down the hallway, the twins practiced hard and sat down to introspect following the 2017 US Open. As they laid down their goals for the next season, Bob was pleasantly surprised to see the stark contrast in their goals.
Bob’s goals were simple and focused on going back out there and enjoying the game. Mike, on the other hand, had written down some goals that made it seem like the twins were back in their prime. He wanted to go out there, win everything there was to win, and finish the year ranked number one.
With a sense of inspiration and a spring in their step, the Bryans began 2018 in fine fashion. After losing a tight final at Indian Wells, they were able to pick up two consecutive Masters 1000 titles at Miami and Monte Carlo. They were on a hot streak and found themselves in the Madrid Masters final two weeks later.
Unfortunately, it was now Bob’s turn to dance with adversity. After months of nagging pain, Bob felt his hip give way as he landed down following a serve. After thousands of matches at various levels, the twins found themselves with no option but to retire for the very first time.
After taking a stem cell injection and failing to see noticeable improvements, Bob decided to take a big risk by opting for a hip replacement surgery. Playing on the tour once more in the future seemed a distant goal, with mere improvement in quality of life being the primary factor behind his decision.
“That hurt, to see him down for the count. But then he worked extremely hard to rehab it and set that goal to come back on the Tour when most guys might’ve just ridden it off and said, ‘I’ve done enough. I’ve achieved everything in the game. I have a family. I’m good.” -Mike Bryan
As Bob continued to work hard at rehab and learned to get used to living life with a metal hip, Mike continued to pile on the accolades. He had paired up with fellow American Jack Sock and the pair were able to clinch Wimbledon, the US Open, and the ATP Finals in a stellar 2018 season.
Bob found it difficult to watch from the sidelines, but was the first to congratulate his brother upon securing each big win. While Mike’s success with Jack was there for everyone to see, he insisted that Jack was just filling in until his brother was ready to get back on the tour.
After training together in December, the twins packed their bags for the Australian Open, understandably tense and uncertain regarding Bob’s return from injury. To their pleasant surprise, the twins were able to muster up a confident showing against eventual champions, Pierre Hughes Herbert and Nicolas Mahut in the quarterfinals.
Buoyed by an encouraging performance, the pair went on to pick up titles at the Delray Beach and Miami Opens. An inspirational return from injury from Bob to say the least.
All Good Things Must Come To An End
After deciding to call quits on their legendary careers after a final US Open showing, the twins announced that 2020 would be their last year on tour. The Bryans picked up yet another title at the Delray Beach Open to open their accounts for one last year.
Seemingly set up for a solid final season, the twins were disrupted and brought to a grinding halt by a poach even they never saw coming. The coronavirus pandemic.
As the tour attempts to revive itself gradually, the USTA has committed to carrying out the US Open as planned initially, but with no fans in attendance. Arthur Ashe will not be buzzing and there will be no chants of “USA! USA!” echoing around the arena as the Bryans go for their signature chest bump.
Certainly not what the twins signed up for. Finish in underwhelming circumstances, or postpone the decision to retire by an entire year?
The Bryans have some thinking to do. Maybe they’ll write a song about it.
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