Bryan brothers keep doubles on tennis radar
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Whether major tennis tournaments still need doubles competition is debatable; this is the age of gladiator singles stars with celebrity status. Rarely do the top players bother with doubles anymore, so almost never does doubles command center-court treatment and television exposure.
In the meantime, though, it is clear enough that doubles play needs the Bryan brothers.
Twins Bob and Mike Bryan, for the past decade, have brought to the fading status of doubles a skill and a metabolism that, according to conventional wisdom, probably has saved their specific discipline from extinction.
Now 35 -- Mike, who plays righthanded and is two minutes older than Bob, the lefthanded twin -- the Bryans are one step from winning the doubles Grand Slam (in a calendar year, the Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open).
They began their unbeaten major-championship run in last summer's London Olympics and added the 2012 Open before this year's three titles. They already have the record for career tour titles -- 92 -- and major-tournament championships -- 15. They reached No. 1 in their discipline for the first time in 2005 and mostly have stayed there.
"I was lucky enough to have those guys as a doubles team in Davis Cup,'' said Patrick McEnroe, the Davis Cup captain when the United States won that international competition in 2007. "They are incredibly passionate about what they do. They do it religiously and consistently.''
They chest-bump during matches, careen around the court with adrenaline coming out of their ears and interact with spectators. They play exhibitions to raise money and attention, constantly agitate the sport's officials to keep doubles on the scene.
"The Bryans,'' John McEnroe said, "are doing a great job to prop up doubles. Without them, it would be in even worse shape than it is, because doubles is on life support.''
McEnroe, who won nine major-tournament doubles crowns to go with his seven in the Slams' singles, played at a time when it was normal to take on both disciplines in the biggest tournaments. But now, said Chris Evert, who won three major doubles tournaments along with 18 singles, "doubles is a disadvantage because the competition is so tough. It's physically and mentally impossible for a top player to play doubles.''
Perhaps the Bryans' first U.S. Open double-take, in 2001, was in singles. Bob drew an opening-day match at Arthur Ashe Stadium against two-time Open champion Patrick Rafter, and Mike, that same night, faced two-time Open winner Andre Agassi. Both twins lost and that year decided to stick to doubles.
"We've always got that burn to get better,'' Bob said. In the Open tune-up tournament at Montreal three weeks ago -- only their fourth loss in 61 matches this year -- "we finished late, around midnight, and went to the gym right after. Got in a workout until 1 o'clock in the morning. Let off some steam.''
What they hope, Mike said, is that their success "might be worth a few points, here and there; we might get some intimidation factor'' that he recalls with the Woodies, the Australian pair of Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, who previously had the doubles titles record of 61.
"When we walked on the court against them, we were just waiting for them to do something brilliant,'' Mike said.
Tennis commentator Cliff Drysdale, half of the 1972 U.S. Open doubles championship team, called the Bryans "probably the best doubles team ever. They're electrifying.
"That said,'' he added, "the singles players are not playing doubles anymore. So there's always an asterisk.''
And what will happen when the Bryans are gone?