Bryans a study in togetherness
The Bryan brothers, doubles stars, are as insuperable as they are inseparable
Once a novelty act, Mike and Bob are the doubles equivalent of Roger Federer
The brothers say they're in no rush to retire -- there's still plenty to accomplish
This story appeared in the April 26, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated.
If there's a prerequisite for success in tennis doubles, it's an ability to block and redirect rapid-fire volleys. They call this asset "quick hands," and it can serve other purposes too. On a lazy weekday afternoon in late February, Bob and Mike Bryan, identical twins and the world's finest practitioners of men's doubles, were eating lunch at an oceanside restaurant in South Florida. Mike had barely finished expressing a thought when -- thwappp! -- the back of his brother's left hand hit his face. "Never saw it coming," Mike says.
The blow sent Mike's sunglasses flying off his head. They landed against the soup bowl of an elderly woman seated at a nearby table. Suppressing the impulse to retaliate -- figuring he'd get payback at another time and place -- Mike retrieved his glasses and went back to eating his meal. As the twins recounted the incident a few days later, they were asked what unspeakable epithet, what provocative comment Mike had uttered to set Bob off in public like that. "I can't even remember," said Mike.
"Could have been anything," said Bob, shrugging. By dessert all had been forgotten. They finished their meals, got back into the car they were sharing, returned to the hotel room they were sharing, changed into matching outfits and headed to the practice court they would share at the Delray Beach Tennis Center. By the end of that week they had teamed to win their 600th professional match together, part of their inexorable assault on tennis history.
"There are two things in life for which we are never truly prepared: twins," humorist Josh Billings remarked. The tennis caravan knows this firsthand. Fresh out of Stanford, the Bryans started out on the ATP Tour in 1998, and their emergence made for a cute story: those handsome and genial look-alikes. They heard the predictable quips -- "I'm seeing double" and "attack of the clones" -- and they played along, dressing identically and sharing everything from an e-mail address to an ATM card. The Bryans were uncommonly, almost jarringly outgoing. Plus, their irrepressible dad, Wayne, was usually nearby, happy to volunteer the boys for clinics or line them up for interviews.
They're almost 32 now, but their relationship remains, well, singular in its intensity and complexity. Over the past decade the Bryans evolved from a novelty act to the most accomplished men's tennis team of their time, the doubles equivalent of Roger Federer or Serena Williams. As of Sunday they had won not only 609 matches but also 59 tournaments, two more than John McEnroe and Peter Fleming and only two fewer than the Open Era record held by retired Australians Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde. The Bryans' eight Grand Slam titles -- the most recent of which was the 2010 Australian Open -- put them three from the Woodies' men's record for majors. Five times since 2003 the Bryans have finished the year as the ATP's top-ranked team. "Those guys are setting the standard, and they have been for years," says McEnroe. "They pretty much are men's doubles right now."
Bound as tightly as the DNA they share, the Bryans play together, travel together and live together, sharing houses in Camarillo, Calif., and Wesley Chapel, Fla. They pool their prize money, employ the same coach and play in the same rock band. In short, they are as insuperable as they are inseparable. "People think of twins as five-year-olds who dress alike and then, as adults, stop being twins," says Debbie Ganz, 42, who cowrote The Book of Twins with her identical-twin sister, Lisa, once owned the Twins Restaurant in Manhattan and now casts twins for commercials. "No, they're twins for life. And, I'm telling you, it's not a normal relationship."
During a rare moment apart last month, Bob and Mike were on opposite coasts for a few days. They were in constant phone contact.
Not much. You?
Not much. Just driving around.
"You look down at your phone, and it's like, eight seconds," says Mike. "But [exchange] those few words, and you're saying, Bob's O.K.; I'm satisfied."
The conventional wisdom is that when the Bryans play, they benefit from what their coach, David Macpherson, calls "the twin ESP thing," what the twins community calls "twinergy synergy" and what comic-book fans in the late 1970s called "Wonder Twin powers." The Bryans' matches tend to be uncommonly fast, mostly because, while other teams hold lengthy strategy conferences between points, each Bryan simply knows where the other will place his serve and when he'll poach at the net. "They don't have the communication issues other teams can have," says Canada's Daniel Nestor, ranked No. 1 in the world in men's doubles. "That counts for a lot."
But the Bryans are also helped by what happens when they don't get along. Doubles teams inevitably feel friction from time to time. Even the most successful teams have broken up over everything from personal conflicts to disagreements over tactics. Feuds often trigger messy breakups, betrayals of partners and new shotgun marriages. (Macpherson played doubles from 1990 to 2002 with more than 20 partners.) But when the Bryans fight they actually beat the crap out of each other, and then they make up. "Neither of us will ever [choose to] play with another partner," says Mike, "so we never worry about offending the [other] guy. Or worse. We'll always get over it."
Their brawl during Wimbledon 2006 is a minor legend in tennis circles. After narrowly winning a match early in the tournament, the twins swapped insults and then punches in the backseat of a courtesy car. When they arrived at the house they were renting, Mike kicked Bob in the stomach and then locked himself in the bathroom. Bob took the opportunity to do a Pete Townshend job on Mike's guitar. Then they patched things up and won the championship.
A more typical throwdown came last year in San Jose. During an early-round match Mike snapped at Bob, who (again the quick hands) jabbed the butt of his racket into Mike's groin. Mike doubled over, fell on all fours in the middle of the court -- and smiled up at his brother. Got me, a------. Eventually Mike stood up, and the twins closed out the match without further incident. "Imagine another team, one guy whacks his partner in the balls," says Bob. "They'd never play another point together again. It's nothing for us!"
Their partnership also benefits from their complementary traits and talents. At 6-4 and 202 pounds, Bob has an inch and 10 or so pounds on his older (by two minutes) brother. Bob uses his lefty serve to devastating effect and is the more accomplished shotmaker. Mike, a righty, is the stronger returner and the more strategic player. "He's a volleying wizard, he's magical, he's magnificent," says Wayne with fatherly understatement.
In a typical point from the Delray tournament in February, Bob kicked his serve out wide, and Mike, at the net, poached and volleyed the return. One of their opponents desperately threw up a lob that Bob, now also at the net, lasered into the corner. "They're really pretty different players," says doubles specialist Rajeev Ram of the U.S. "You don't ever confuse them on the court."
Yet between matches the Bryans remain a conflated monolith, a two-headed beast. Colleagues who have known them for years still can't tell one from the other in the players' lounge; most play it safe and address each of them with the generic bro or dude. The Bryans are forever being misidentified in tournament programs and even on billboards. It recalls one of the great stories in tennis lore: In the 1970s, a German journeyman, Karl Meiler, played both Tim and Tom Gullikson -- righty-lefty identical twins from Wisconsin -- in singles in the span of a month. As he retreated to the locker room following the second meeting, Meiler shook his head in awe. "Man, that guy Gullikson is good," he allegedly marveled. "He beat me a few weeks ago with one hand, and he beat me today with his opposite hand!"