The Bryan Bros. and the Woodies

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Let’s talk dubs. At Wimbledon IT gathered the preeminent double team of our day, U.S. Open champs Mike and Bob Bryan, and one of the best doubles team in history, Aussie Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde.

INSIDE TENNIS: Do we need any introductions here? Just kidding. No? Okay, Mark and Todd, when “The Bryans” come to mind, what first pops into your mind?

MARK WOODFORDE: They suck [laughter]. Wannabes. No — far from it. Definitely the No. 1 team in the world, and they deserve to be wearing that mantle.

IT: Any shot they’ll catch your numbers?

WOODFORDE: No [laughter].

TODD WOODBRIDGE: I expect they will. I’m resigned to that.

BOB BRYAN: Maybe if we play for another 10 years.

MIKE BRYAN: What they did will never be matched. What they did at Wimbledon, they won the gold medal, I mean, all the records are way out there. They’re going to go down as the greatest of all time. Hopefully, we can be in the mix if we can run down one of their records. But we haven’t done enough to equal the Woodies. The Woodies are the Woodies.

BOB: We’d be happy to be mentioned in the same sentence. They’re the greatest of all time. We’re just a squirrel trying to get a nut. We’re trying to take one at a time. They won 61; I think Todd won 83. We’re 30 years old.  If we play until another five years, we could maybe track that 61 down, but I’m not going to start talking about it yet.

IT: Mike and Bob are famous around the world for being so in sync with ESP, ESPN, everything. But, truth be told, Mark and Todd, you two aren’t exactly the same types. There are, shall we say, a few little differences.

WOODBRIDGE: That’s probably true, but in terms of our game, we were really in sync. With doubles, you’ve got to match strengths and weaknesses. Mark was a lefty. I was a righty. He was the steady one on temperament. I wasn’t. All those things became gelling factors. So, as an on-court partnership, that was probably why we were much better than anybody else.

IT: Are your best moments, as a team, when you are in sync?

MIKE: Todd and Mark were pretty much always in sync. They played beautiful doubles. They weren’t overpowering, but they always found the angles. They read the court better than any other team. They approached at the right times. Watching them play big matches, they really played up to the moment. They played their best when it counted. We’ve learned a lot from these guys. We’ve tried to study them. We’re more like a power, caveman team. There’s not a lot of teams out there right now that truly understand the game like these guys. Doubles has changed a lot. And they played doubles the best it could be played.

IT: What was the No. 1 thing you learned from the Woodies?

MIKE: You can write a book on how great these guys were. Sticking their volleys, the way they poached. They hit their spots on the serve. They just played percentage doubles. They’re the best. We’re just happy to be in the same room.

WOODFORDE: What impresses me is the Bryans’ synchronicity. There are very few great doubles teams that aren’t close. You would probably never find one team that disliked each other, that didn’t have a complete understanding. It happened with Todd and myself. It clearly happens with the Bryans. Todd and I were a verbal team. They may not have to verbalize. They have that luxury, that blessing, of being twins.

BOB: We call it ‘twinning.’ 

WOODFORDE: Bob and Mike probably changed their game over time. They started off as a power team, and they still have power. We developed some power. But they’ve brought in a little bit of craftsmanship. They’ve learned a little bit more finesse, some angles. They don’t have to be overpowering the entire time. That works in some situations. But not all the time.

IT: How would you compare winning your homeland Grand Slam — the Aussie Open or the U.S. Open — to Roland Garros, Wimbledon or a big Davis Cup match?

BOB: I don’t think you can compare. All the moments are so sweet. All we can say is that we felt so great after winning Wimbledon and so great after winning the Davis Cup. I guess you have to judge it on the fans’ response. All these moments are unbelievable for us.

WOODFORDE: Don’t you hate it when they ask you, “Tell us what your greatest triumph is?” Look, you’re fortunate to have a few. How can you just pick one?

BOB: Probably winning Wimbledon was — to us — the greatest. And then the one that got the most pop was winning the Davis Cup [in Portland last December.] That’s the one people were congratulating us about.

MIKE: Would you guys pick winning Wimbledon?

WOODBRIDGE: The first one. I think the first time you can say you’re the Wimbledon champion carries more weight than any other tournament. You take that with you for the rest of your career. But it tends to be an individual performance that you get satisfaction from. For us, winning the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta totally took us out of a tennis bracket and into a sporting legends bracket, if you like, in our country. It really transcended anything we’d done on an individual basis.

IT: As for doubles itself, what’s the most important: Getting your first serve in? Controlling the middle? Communication?

WOODFORDE: We want to hear you, Bob and Mike.

MIKE: Todd and Mark complemented each other. I think we do, too. Bob is a 99 percent hold. I like to make a few returns.

WOODFORDE: Control the middle.

WOODBRIDGE: Communication. We didn’t have this brotherly sort of understanding of each other, but I can imagine family can be hard to keep under control at times. Playing with your sister or your mother or something like that is tough. Mark and I did a good job when we were not so happy with each other at sitting down at a table, belting it out and getting it clear. You can’t play for 10 years with somebody if you don’t have communication.

IT: When did you guys sense, “We might have a shot here, we could be a real team, a real force?”

BOB: They [the Woodies] were always a force.

WOODBRIDGE: No, not really. Probably about ‘93, when we won our first Wimbledon, and then toward the end of ‘94 we started to dominate a bit.

WOODFORDE: In ‘92, we won the Australian Open together.

IT: Mike and Bob, when did you guys start to sense it?

MIKE: We’ve always done well at doubles. When we came on tour, doubles kind of popped first. Our first big win was over Rafter/ Bjorkman at Indian Wells. That popped us into the top 100. We always had doubles goals, doubles dreams.

WOODBRIDGE: You know what is really important with the Bryans is that they more or less took over our mantle. Doubles really needed them. It’s great that they’re still here and pushing it. Let’s be honest, I don’t want them to break my record — our record. But the fact is it’s excellent that they can keep an art out there, sort of a dying art. We need the Bryans out there for as long as possible.

IT: So just how has the doubles scenario changed?

BOB: There are more doubles players now. The doubles game is interesting now with all the singles players. The game’s changed with the rackets. Everyone has power. When Todd and Mark were playing, it was all craftsman and artists out there. [Jared] Palmer, all these guys were great doubles players. You really had to play true doubles. Now we can stay back and pick on a poor volleyer, a Spanish guy. It’s just a lot different. The game’s changed a lot.

MIKE: I don’t want to say it’s easier now. We played two Spaniards in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. That wouldn’t have happened when Mark and Todd were around.

WOODFORDE: What was your first year at the U.S. Open?

BOB: ‘95.

WOODFORDE: What’s funny is that we walked off the court that year, and I think you guys were taking the court just after us. 

BOB: We were 115 pounds.

WOODFORDE: You guys were walking out and Todd just said, “Have a look at those juniors.” You were so small. You were bug-like. We just sort of stood there and watched you guys walk by.

MIKE: They wouldn’t give us a badge. They thought we were ball­kids or whatever. It took until the middle of Wednesday to get a badge.

WOODFORDE: You got wildcarded in?

BOB: Right. They wouldn’t give us a court.

WOODFORDE: You looked so small.

IT: So, Bob and Mike, if you had to play the Woodies, what kind of game plan would you have?

BOB: If you put those guys into Wimbledon right now, we’d be facing them in the semis.

IT: With both of you, Todd and Mark, there was a sense of flow with the hands, a certain movement. Do you think the fans picked up on that?

WOODFORDE: That did translate. The crowd understood. That’s why they probably came to watch us play. We might have been a little slower, but we can still…

WOODBRIDGE: We didn’t have big serves. So by necessity, we had different skills. We relied on great low volleys and stuff like that. The Bryans don’t have to because they have such good serves.

IT: The game is crowded with conventional wisdoms. Big Bill Tilden said, “The seventh game is the big, critical one.” Becker said, “In the fifth set it’s not about tennis, it’s about the mind.” Then there’s Peter Fleming’s quip that the best dubs team ever was a fellow named John McEnroe and anyone else. 

MIKE: The records speak for themselves. I never really got to see Johnny Mac. But watching these guys, I think…I don’t want to say it on the record. I’m not gonna say it.

WOODFORDE: It will get back to John. He’ll read it.

IT: Okay, forget that. So let me ask, what’s the toughest tournament?

MIKE: It must be the French. That was one of the Woodies’ last tournaments. That was a hell of an effort, knowing Mark was going to soon retire. They wanted to complete the career Slam. They stepped up and did it. The French is the toughest because every team is a little bit better, even the singles players are better.

IT: And best venue?

WOODFORDE: Wimbledon.

BOB: Yeah.

IT: You’ve faced so many doubles players. Who did you learn the most from, either individually or as a team?

WOODBRIDGE: There were teams that you would come up against that would influence you and you’d learn from. For us, as a new partnership, it was John Fitzgerald and Anders Jarryd, because they had won nearly all the majors together and they were the No. 1 team in the world. We just started to chip away at them. We finally beat them and took over. But they played a bit of an old-fashioned style that Mark and I were able to look at.

BOB: Just watching the Woodies, the way they played doubles. They didn’t use their serves.

WOODBRIDGE: We didn’t have serves.

BOB: They’ve given us a lot of advice. I remember you telling us a couple of years ago, in practice, “Volley from no man’s land, learn to stick that tough volley.” That helped us a lot.

MIKE: They were the first to congratulate us when we won, too.

BOB: It was unbelievable to see how they went for it, how they hit every shot, every return with authority and stuck their volleys. They just kind of dissected their opponents. A hot knife through butter.

WOODFORDE: We learned from all our hard work. It was a relief in a way when we reached the final because we’d followed through on all the hard work. So it was amazing to watch some other teams really panic. I don’t know if they believed. And we fed on that. There were some tight moments, but we were generally calm and we could play the shots. This was more clear once we got to the final, rather than navigating through the murky early rounds. It’s not easy, but I think we saved the best until we got to the semis or the final.

IT: So was there an advantage to being the Woodies?

MIKE: The name “the Woodies” put fear into you. You knew they were coming.

WOODBRIDGE: There’s always a flipside to that, though. It was harder for us early in rounds because we weren’t sharp enough, whereas once we got to the latter rounds, we found a bit of form and our opponents’ skill set didn’t match ours.

IT: You guys do a lot of grassroots work, a lot of teaching. What are a few tips you give to recreational players with, the ones who say, “I want to upgrade my dubs.”

WOODFORDE: Learn to bloody volley from the halfcourt. Everyone says, “I’m gonna volley.” And they go up so close to the net, and they go, “I can volley.” But you can only volley there at the net if you make the first volley from around the service line. That’s the hard work there. 

WOODBRIDGE: I tell players to learn to play the angles and you don’t have to hit every ball. Because if you place it in the right place that’s efficient. Bob and Mike have learned that. There are so many guys in the modern game who don’t understand the value of a nicely rolled shot going in.

IT: What’s the most satisfying sequence in doubles? Is it a finesse rally?

BOB: It feels good when your partner hits a good return and you poach. That’s like clockwork.

MIKE: It also feels good to cherry pick Bob’s serve at the net.

WOODBRIDGE: I used to do that with Mark. [laughter]

WOODFORDE: We’re comparable, aren’t we? [laughter]

IT: I’ve got to ask, if you could change one thing…

WOODFORDE: We just told you — the serve. [laughter]

IT: What’s the best part of traveling the world with your brother?

MIKE: It’s just a lot of fun having a built-in best friend to travel the world with, work with and share all these experiences with. You know, I love this guy. We’ve been doing it together for a long time. It would be a little bit boring if I was out here by myself. I don’t know if I would still be playing. If he gets hurt tomorrow, I’ll probably stop. We just love doing it together.

BOB: We’ll be talking about wins for the rest of our lives. We’ve been through all the highs and lows together, and that’s what makes our bond so tight. It’s not just the DNA, it’s all the ups and downs we’ve been through.

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