America's dynamic duo of Davis Cup

4/5/2007 - Tennis

Bob and Mike Bryan were made for Davis Cup, and vice versa.

Gregarious, relentlessly upbeat, professional yet passionate, the telepathic twins bound around the court as if they had springs built into their shoes and celebrate victories by executing a flying chest bump. So it's admirable, but not entirely surprising, that the world's No. 1 doubles team is well on its way to becoming the most successful U.S. tandem ever in Davis Cup's boisterous, high-energy atmosphere.

"We haven't really played a bad match in Davis Cup," Bob Bryan said last week. "It's fun to practice for seven days for one match. You can really leave it all out there. You can wake up sore, stiff, it doesn't matter."

Mike: "You die. You die."

Bob: "And you've got three months before the next one."

One of three teams in the Open era to win a career Grand Slam, the Bryans have amassed 36 ATP titles for the trophy case they share in their Tampa-area home, the most recent last week at the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla.

But it was Davis Cup that "really kind of put us on the map," Mike said. The championship the U.S. team has been chasing since 1995 is also one of the Bryans' few unconquered summits, along with an Olympic medal, and they want it badly.

Doubles gets its own dedicated day in the middle of Davis Cup weekend and often tips the balance. Saturday afternoon, the Bryans will play a Spanish team -- most likely Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez -- before 14,500 at sold-out Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The Bryans, 10-1 in Davis Cup play since their debut in 2003, are closing in on the previous U.S. doubles standard set by Peter Fleming and John McEnroe, who were 14-1 from 1979-84. Six of the Bryans' wins have come with the U.S. team tied 1-1 after splitting singles matches on Friday; the U.S. has gone on to win each of those meetings.

"People just sort of assume we're going to win the doubles point," U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe said recently. "The nice thing is that [the Bryans] don't assume it.

"They're not at all afraid of the pressure that's on them. They seem to relish it. They love the responsibility. A lot of tennis players sort of try to downplay the pressure of a match, that it's like any other match. They play it up. And then they go out and play well, every time."

The Bryans "never get up in a bad mood," said their regular coach, Australian David MacPherson. They have a lethal lefty (Bob)/righty (Mike) combination punch, an image wholesome enough to attract sponsorship from a giant mortgage company (Countrywide Financial), and a regimented, no-fuss approach to practice.

They've done the same concentrated drills since they were kids, and exploit their mystical sense of how to share space. As the twins' friend and WTA veteran Corina Morariu said recently, "If you'd been playing doubles together since you were born, Bob and Mike would still have nine months on you."

Their parents forbid them to compete against each other as juniors, a ban they regard as wise.

"I always thought I was better, he always thought he was better, we kept pushing each other," Bob said. "No one could say anything because there wasn't any actual result. You don't want twins to play against each other until they're really developed and mature enough to take losses."

The twins have never faced one another in singles on the ATP level. Mike won two of their three meetings on the Challenger circuit, but Bob owns the better career-high ranking, No. 116 in 2000.

In Davis Cup play, the Bryans usually face a cut-and-paste pair -- skilled individuals who are untried as a unit -- rather than a true doubles duo. The brothers' game is so imposing that some countries have thrown in the towel and thrown two lesser players to the lions, virtually conceding the doubles match. That doesn't take the fizz out of the bubbly when it's over, the brothers said.

The twins, who will turn 29 later this month, have had their sights trained on Davis Cup ever since they saw their first one at age 11 in Carlsbad, Calif., but destiny was deferred a little longer than they would have liked.

They led Stanford University to NCAA championships in 1997 and 1998 and elected to concentrate on doubles soon after they turned pro, winning their first ATP event in 2001.

But McEnroe waited until September 2003, the year the twins captured their first Masters Series and Grand Slam titles, to tap them for an away tie against the Slovak Republic. The announcement was made the same week the Bryans achieved their first world No. 1 ranking.

Having a strong, inseparable Davis Cup doubles team is a luxury in one way and a strategic risk in another, because a doubles specialist would have to step in if a singles player were injured on the first day. McEnroe admitted he was conservative. "It took me a while to build that trust," he said.

In the interim, the twins were frustrated. "It was a lot of pressure there for a couple years," Bob Bryan said. "Every time you miss a return you're like, 'He's watching that, he's not gonna pick us now.' Then he picked us and then we were like, 'OK we have to win, it's our last shot.'"

It wasn't an easy initiation. The U.S. team had fallen to Croatia in the first round earlier that year, putting McEnroe and crew in danger of dropping out of the world's top 16 for the first time since 1988.

The captain allayed the Bryans' anxiety with a phone call the night before. "He said, 'Win or lose tomorrow, I'm picking you guys, you guys are gonna be our boys in the future,'" Mike recalled. "It freed us up to go out there and just go for it."

They did, although Mike was so jacked up that he cramped on match point. They've learned to pace themselves, but their intensity level is still high. McEnroe vividly remembers keeping the Bryans company in the locker room at the Delray Beach (Fla.) Tennis Center before their 2004 quarterfinal match against Sweden.

"We must have sat there for half an hour in total silence," McEnroe said. "Then they both got up at the same exact moment, and said, together, 'Let's go put this away,' or something like that. And they did."

The Bryans say the two-way loyalty between them and McEnroe is cemented now. "It's really helped us, knowing that he has confidence in us," Mike said. "Since we played our first Davis Cup tie, we've gone on a little roll. We've been No. 1 three out of the last four years." Solidarity with the rest of the team is a given; the Bryans count Roddick and James Blake among their best friends.

The Bryans are seldom idle. Their short offseason is filled with charity work and frequent appearances in their alter ego roles as The Bryan Brothers Band, rock musicians. They say they intend to play tennis for at least several more years.

"We know it's a lucky lifestyle to be able to travel with your brother and share these moments, these victories, losses, whatever they are," Mike said. "There's nothing else I'd rather be doing."

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.