In Texas football there’s Friday Night Lights. In the NFL there’s Monday Night Football. In Davis Cup tennis, there’s Saturday Morning Live with the Bryans.
For 14 sweet years, Bob and Mike Bryan stepped up, usually at 11 a.m. my time, and played sublime Saturday doubles. They were as close to an automatic point as possible – advantage USA.
Now the Bryans will be retiring from Davis Cup play. “Our chest bumps are getting lower,” they joked. “We used to get some air. Now it’s just an inch or two.”
The Davis Cup has been front and center in the Bryans’ odyssey. “We put our heart and soul into it and played every match like it was a Grand Slam final. We played with energy and passion for the country. We loved playing for two amazing captains [Pat McEnroe and Jim Courier].”
When they were kids, their inventive, tennis-loving dad Wayne took them to see a Davis Cup match at San Diego’s La Costa resort. It transformed their lives. When they went to Stanford they played for coach Dick Gould. Their frequent trips to Athens, Georgia – where fraternity fellows do toss beer on your head – prepared them for Croats and Chileans.
Coach Gould contended, “No one could have represented their family, their school, their sport or their country like Bob and Mike. They had great values, yet were fun. And they were great leaders. They made me better.”
It took the Bryans a long time – too long – to even make the Davis Cup team. Captain McEnroe wanted the youngsters to be No. 1 before he’d put them on the squad. After that they always showed up. They were classy and patriotic – emotional but fair. They took all the extra steps, and their spitfire play was astounding.
More than any other duo, they studied doubles, practiced doubles and lived and loved doubles. To them, it was a science. Strategy mattered, knowing their foes was key, angles rule, control the middle. They knew how to fight – with their foes and with themselves. Blood is thick. Plus, they complimented each other. Bob is a lefty with a booming serve. Mike is right-handed, has devastating volleys and returns like a demon.
Most of all, there was the twin factor. They first played together when they were six and were always each other’s built-in practice and travel partners. That worked! They knew what the other was thinking. They finished each other’s sentences. Their mirror-like synergy was one of the more curious phenomena in sports. When Bob twitched, Mike twitched. When Mike shuffled his feet, Bob shuffled his feet. They flowed, they exploded – often in unison. They didn’t need to talk much. It was eerie. And it was uncanny that the slim California twins, with their 24-5 record, became the most successful doubles team in the history of American Davis Cup play.
With a hint of melancholy they confided, “It was an amazing ride,” which with the Olympics, will be at the forefront of their memories. “[All those] ties and every time we didn’t sleep well …didn’t eat well…It is a nauseating amount of pressure. But in return you get paid off with some of the sweetest victories of your career.”
With a quiet glee they spoke of victories in Switzerland, in France, and in Charleston against Belarus. “Standing there on the service line hearing the national anthem, running out to pyrotechnics, having stealth bombers fly over the stadium…So many times we were wobbly at the knees and had goosebumps. That doesn’t happen on the tour.”
To them the most beautiful place they played was California’s singular LaJolla Beach and Tennis Club, and maybe Winston-Salem. Their worst loss was against Croatia in Carson, CA and the toughest crowd they faced was actually the Croatians in Carson. The most exotic sites they played in were San Diego’s baseball stadium and a huge soccer stadium in Seville, Spain, in front of 27,000 fans. Consistently their toughest foes were the Spaniards, and the best player they played with was Andy Roddick. “The guy was so clutch,” they recalled. “A lot of the time he put the team on his shoulders, and fought so hard. He competed like an animal…he’d just served lightning.”
But, everything wasn’t always rosy. They won only one Davis Cup championship – against Russia in 2007 in Portland. And they lost considerable money to James Blake. “He’s got a horseshoe up his rear end,” they joked. “He won thousands…I don’t know how he does it, but he pulls the cards every time…He was one of the luckiest guys in poker.” And American tennis fans were lucky too.
Time and again, over 14 years, we tuned in to Saturday Morning Live to watch the show’s stars, two athletic actors who did our country proud as they lifted the doubles game to heady heights. While the singular Federer is the great ambassador of singles, the two stars of Saturday Morning Live were the happy pied pipers of doubles.