"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!"
The twins, meanwhile, dress alike on the court at the behest of their sponsor K Swiss and do little to differentiate themselves off the court. Reflexively, both turn around when one of their names is called. They're seldom seen apart. While there once was a handy distinction, a small mole on Mike's face, Mike had it removed. They have the same social circle. "It's definitely a package deal," says Mardy Fish, a U.S. player and one of the Bryans' best friends on the circuit. "You don't like one more than the other, because they're pretty much the same."