For 22 years we have been amazed by the Bryan brothers’ uncanny, ethereal synchronicity. Mike and Bob were silky shadows – they moved and played as one. Bob hopped, Mike hopped, Bob twitched, Mike twitched. They forged a game within a game. They shaped, defended and popularized modern doubles. And always with an appealing mix of athleticism, grace and glee that prompted Mary Carillo to ask, “What’s not to like about those guys? They act like they’re at their own eighth birthday party.”
Yesterday the best doubles tennis team ever and the foremost twins in sports history retired. Bob recently observed, “We bring some joy to people’s lives. It’s really why we love to play. It’s about giving back. That’s basically why we’re out there.” The bounding boys from Camarillo, CA who will be dearly missed.
This writer is proud to share that he’s the California Mixed Doubles Pro-am defending champion. Then again, the Bryan brothers have won 15 major mixed doubles crowns, including Bob’s historic US Open win with Martina Navratilova, when she was 49.
I won the 1980 Super Bowl Media Championship in L.A. and took home my prize – a tennis racket. The Bryans have won 119 titles, that is almost twice as much as any other team. These wins include 16 men’s Slam doubles crowns and they’ve banked a tidy $36 million.
They’ve thrown out the first pitch before games at Dodger and Yankee Stadiums, rung the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange and signed endorsements from every possible company, from Esurance to K-Swiss, and a comfy Luraco lounging chair. I’m still looking for my first endorsement contract.
Still, I feel at one with the brothers.
It’s not like I’m a third Bryan brother – there’s no such thing. But I feel like a kind of Bryan whisperer. I have a Pavlovian reaction when a dissociated press room voice announces: “Bryan brothers in Interview Room 2 at 6:30 PM.” I grab my pad and recorder and dash off, hunting for tidbits and wisdom. By my count, I’ve been to 237 interviews with Bob and Mike, from beer joints in the Coachella Valley to tiny rooms overlooking Australian railroad tracks. I’ve seen them triumph in Portland and bear insufferable losses in Carson, CA and Seville, Spain in front of 27,000 throaty Spaniards. Twenty-three years ago, I headed to the 100th Cal vs. Stanford Big Game. There, in Palo Alto, amidst 80,000 folks, I bumped into two kids getting off their bikes: baby-faced Bob and Mike.
Years later, trying to reach Heathrow Airport, I was stuck in one of London’s wretched Monday morning traffic jams. For 35 minutes I was staring into Bob and Mike’s van ahead of me, packed to the gills with their red Wilson gear.
I must have heard at least a dozen times their formative story how their loving dad Wayne took them to San Diego to see the Davis Cup when they were just six or seven and pro Ricky Leach gave them an American flag. That’s when they got hooked on tennis.
Just maybe the brothers were the luckiest kids in tennis history. Their mom Kathy, who was No. 11 in the US, was an inspired coach who would give them 25 cents every time they came to net in a match. Their charismatic dad Wayne was No. 1 at UC Santa Barbara, and one of tennis’ most energetic enthusiasts, who almost single-handedly saved the modern doubles game when the ATP wanted to kick it in the shins.
As with Serena and Venus, there was a master plan from the beginning. Wayne became quite an expert on child-rearing and wrote a book on the topic. Of course, that didn’t stop him from tossing the boys’ amp down a ravine when they were getting far too rambunctious.
The twins started hitting balloons at two. They won their first tourney at six and proclaimed they would be No. 1 by eight. Never mind that they were rarely allowed to play each other in junior finals. They always had built-in practice partners – have any two ATP players ever hit with each other so much? And, oh, did their skill sets mesh. Bob is a lefty with a booming serve and a mighty forehand. Mike is right-handed, has devastating volleys and returns like a demon.
Their talents drew the attention of Stanford’s fabled Dick Gould, who snatched the young boys out of the clutches of USC. As a freshman Bob snuck a mattress into Mike’s room just to be close to his bro. Soon they led the Cardinal to the 1997 and 1998 NCAA team championships, and Bob also won the singles and doubles titles in 1998. Each year at Stanford they headed off on a daunting trip to Athens, Georgia for the NCAA championships, where well-lubricated fraternity brothers didn’t hesitate to dump beer on them. Oh well, it proved to be a handy preparation for the unkind jeers they’d hear from fans around the world, from Chile to Croatia.
Soon enough the Bryans would be chest-bumping the doubles record book off its moorings. Over their career they won 16 Grand Slam titles together, were ranked No. 1 for 438 weeks and finished 10 years as the world’s top doubles team. Their favorite tennis moment was winning the 2012 Olympics at Wimbledon.
Yet, so much of their brand was Davis Cup. For 14 years, Bob and Mike Bryan stepped up, usually at 11 AM Pacific time, and played sublime Saturday ball. They were as close to an automatic point as possible – advantage USA. They won a record 25 matches and were part of America’s last winning team in 2007.
With a quiet glee they would share the magic of Davis Cup play. They recalled, “It was incredible running out to the pyrotechnics, standing there hearing the national anthem, having stealth bombers flying over the stadium. So many times we were wobbly at the knees and had goosebumps. That doesn’t happen on the tour.”
Of course, tennis wasn’t always a jolly cake walk filled with goosebumps and glory. When they first emerged, officials thought they were ball boys. Opponents razzed them, claiming they were cocky punks. It took seemingly forever for them to even make the Davis Cup team. Once there, teammate James Blake fleeced them out of thousands at assorted poker tables. A wrenching divorce that Mike endured affected both their spirit and their play.
Plus, there were brotherly spats. Once, in London, Mike’s criticism of Bob’s serving led to an infamous brawl, complete with slammed doors, “I hate you” taunts, mule-kicks, bashed doors and a smashed guitar. Then there was silence. They had dinner and soon won Wimbledon.
Toward the end of their career, the boys admitted their patented chest bumps were getting lower, and Bob’s devastating hip injury led to pain, tears, surgery and a brief, noble return. They won their last title in Delray Beach in February and played their last match in World TeamTennis in July. They’d been planning to retire at this year’s US Open. But the tourney’s fan-less format took away the prime reason for a New York swan song.
Over the years they’ve praised Daniel Nestor’s longevity and Federer’s grace. Andy Roddick always had a special place in their hearts. “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 just served lightning.”
The brothers shared that their favorite venues were the La Jolla Beach Club and Winston-Salem, and the best advice they ever got came from coach Gould: “Be proud, but don’t be satisfied.” “We take that to heart. Win or lose, we’re always ready to put our hats back on the next Monday and work. We try not to get too content.”
Perhaps what was most amazing about the brothers was how giving they were for so long and their stunning synchronicity. CNN featured this dialogue:
Mike: “We’re pretty telepathic. I know what he’s thinking.”
Bob: “Yeah? What am I thinking now?”
Mike: “You’re thinking I just gave a crappy answer [to that last question].
Bob: “Yeah, you’re right.”
One Saturday, when Mike was in California and Bob was in Miami, they were on the phone when they realized that they’d just simultaneously bought the exact same brown-beige Crate and Barrel couch for the same price.
Chanda Rubin noted, “You get a sense with the Bryans that they just know where to be. One hits a shot, the other knows where to follow. It’s a bit like a dance out there.” Watching a Bryans practice or a match was indeed like an outing to a ballet: timely thrusts, deft volleys, inventive flicks, desperate karate-like stabs.
In the end, noted Coach Gould, “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. they made us better.”
I will dearly miss these good men and hearty warriors, and their kindness, wisdom and a joy that once led me to write this ode to brothers.
They sense nuance, read subtleties.
Intuition is their friend,
A trusted ally.
Brothers know secrets – a vacation
Gone awry, family triumphs,
Silence speaks to brothers.
Don’t even try to hide
Brothers’ laughter resonates
It emerges from
A different, safer place.
“How dare you say that”
Anger flares fierce
Yet, ultimately, brothers show the way
The twists of the path revealed.
So, go ahead, bro, finish
You always do.
Go ahead, smother me
With your pranks.
You always do.
So go ahead bro, embrace me
You always do.