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.