All You Need Is Love (and a Mighty Serve)

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61205450LOS ANGELES — There was little majesty and less grace. But the Bryan Bros. — consistent fighters, relentless pros, perpetually on message — got the job done.

Phew!

After 30,000 hours of practice and two million miles of travel; after surviving fleabag motels in Carolina and losing their bags in every corner of this planet; after sleepless nights in many an airport; after 100 finals and endless junior and collegiate battles; after men’s doubles itself was nearly neutered, the Bob and Mike Bryan‘s record-seeking journey passed through Roland Garros (where their baguettes were stale) and Wimbledon’s Court Two (which shouted: “Not now, lads!”) and eventually brought them to their home court — Straus Stadium at UCLA, where they had long ago been ballboys, played junior tournaments, captured the NCAAs and won five ATP titles.  Here there was a gathering of the California tribe. Family, cousins, friends, fans.

“It was like Thanksgiving,” Bob gushed. “This is storybook…We couldn’t get everyone together anywhere else except in L.A. We aren’t going to have 30 family members come to Beijing. This was a one-shot deal for us.”

No wonder they admitted their legs drooped like jelly and their arms felt like spaghetti. The duo, which has faced a career-full of high-wire moments, confided, “It’s not easy. We never felt the pressure like we felt today.”

The champagne had been on ice since they won Madrid in mid-may. Then again, nothing comes fast for the Bryans.

“We had trouble getting the pickle out of the jar,” they joked. “[But] we weren’t just playing for ourselves. [If we lost] we would have let so many down,” they admitted.

They almost did.

Failing to read the script, the twins lost the first set of the final to a little known pick-up duo of Eric Butorac and Jean-Julien Rojer, who were playing their first tournament together. Plus, they almost let the entire moment slip away in the decisive tiebreak.  Later they admitted, “When you’re not thinking about points but you’re thinking about history, it’s not good.”

Still, in the end, the onetime Stanford standouts would be nothing but clutch. After all, they noted, this was Everest. They had come this far — a record-tying 61 titles. Now it was time to summit. And when Mike punished a forehand volley, the Bryans, 32, scored a 6-7(6), 6-2, 10-7 triumph to win the Farmers Classic title (in their 100th career final) to surpass the storied Woodies, Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, to set the record for the most doubles titles ever — 62.

But how did they do it?

Analysts quickly noted their professionalism, their longevity, their proficiency on serve, their ability to guard the middle, their quick hands, their wonder-reflexes and how they take their opponents’ time away.  And yes, it’s handy that Bob’s a lefty with some nasty volleys and Mike’s a righty with an awesome return. Sports psychologists might note their enthusiasm and synergy.

But the Bryans have something else unlike any others: the best (even more far reaching than Andre Agassi‘s) support system in the history of the game. Thrust into the game as small Camarillo kids, they were taught their classic strokes by their mom Kathy, a world-class player who still advises. Their irrepressible dad, Wayne, is the greatest booster in American tennis. Even their grandmother, Alice, 88, rises at 3 a.m. to chart their European matches using an esoteric mix of lines, dashes and crosses.

She’s never missed a point.

Inspired by the likes of Pete Sampras and Ricky Leach, the young wannabes emerged out of the still-formidable-after-all-these-years star-making system of Southern California; were honed by the then-dominant and doubles-happy Stanford program, established a great coaching relationship with David Macpherson, travel much of the circuit with their girlfriends and are at the core of America’s Band of Brothers generation — Andy Roddick, James Blake, Mardy Fish, Sam Querrey, John Isner and Robby Ginepri — which was shaped by Davis Cup coach Pat McEnroe.

“After most of our big matches,” Mike reported, “we know we’ll be getting five texts. It’s a fabulous feeling.”

Of course, the Bryans — who think together, move together and twitch together — have one more dimension to their support system: themselves. It’s not just that they share houses and a bank account, they love being twins, they love being together and they love what they do for a living. When things go sour (and they always do), they are always there for each other.

“We’ve had some dry spells and a couple of cold patches,” they told IT. “Then we just go back home and get back to work…We can be honest and expect the best out of each other. We’re twins. [When] other teams might break apart and crack, we’re always going to stay together.”

Such is the key to their 12-year longevity. Ultimately, the Bryans are normal guys who like their girls and guitars, teasing and Twitter. They’re delightfully open and, get this, they actually cooperate with the media and promote the game.  Despite their Beach-Boys-with-a-backhand normalcy, they have done extraordinary things, unlike any other doubles team, unlike any other twins.  Yes, there are hints of individuation. The duo actually did NOT stay together in Paris. All the while, observers ask how long will they go on. Will they break the record of 79 titles won by Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver? Are they the best of all time, or is it The Woodies (who have 11 Slam titles compared to eight for the Bryans) or John McEnroe/Peter Fleming or one of the great Aussie teams like John Newcombe/Tony Roche?  Who knows. But one thing is certain. “They are,” as their mom noted “surrounded by love.”

“It’s true,” the brothers concurred. “We have incredible support around us. We have a huge platform below us supporting us. Every time we win or every time we lose, our dad sends us an e-mail we read and then say hey we are really not that bad.  Everyone puts us in perspective. When you lose, it’s no big deal. We just come back home and get some food. We always have people grounding us. It’s good to have people who love you.”