INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- When you're No. 1, you're looking to establish an edge right from the jump. And, of course, that's literally true for world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who bounces up and down at the net for the prematch coin toss in the manner of a boxer intent on maiming his opponent.
But things took a different twist for Nadal on Tuesday at the BNP Paribas Open. He wasn't the only No. 1 on the court. This was a doubles match at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden's intimate Stadium Two. Just past 10 p.m. PT, Nadal stared across the net and saw the world's best doubles team, Mike and Bob Bryan. And as Nadal continued his trademark prematch bounce alongside his partner, Marc Lopez, lefty Bob jumped even higher, leaping into the air as if he were Pete Townshend of The Who.
Said Bob after the match, "We wanted to show we weren't intimidated or scared of him."
An impassioned crowd of 5,000 -- the vast majority of which had settled in to watch toward the end of the evening's preceding singles match -- was primed. Inhibitions were even lower than usual, given that it was St. Patrick's Day.
In recent years, Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and other top singles players occasionally have committed to doubles at events when it's workable. Said Nadal before the doubles match, "It's [a] two-weeks tournament, so I have days off. … I don't play a lot, but I think this tournament is the right tournament to play, no?" The Spaniard also believes doubles can help him get more comfortable on hard courts after the previous week's Davis Cup tie on clay.
Having taken care of business earlier in the day with a workmanlike win over Dmitry Tursunov, Nadal approached the doubles at once eager and relaxed. "We gonna try our best for have good fun and play a good match and have a good result," he said. Early in the match, after missing a shot, Nadal kicked the ball clear across the court.
But for all the entertainment value, there was a far more significant subtext. As the Bryans' posse of coach David MacPherson, assistant Mark Bey, friend/music consultant Willard Bronson and assorted others occupied a full 10 courtside seats, the mood was far from gleeful. The task was simple: Prove that a well-oiled doubles team is more skilled than a superb singles player paired with a mate. Two nights earlier, the Bryans had faced their first test versus Federer and Yves Allegro. The Swiss duo had packed it in early, going down 6-2, 6-0. It was hard to imagine Nadal would capitulate so easily.
"You feel little butterflies," Bob said. "We look up to these guys. It takes a little while to just focus on the ball."
And unquestionably, Nadal was fully engaged. To be sure, his doubles prowess is limited. A couple of times when he served and volleyed, he butchered volleys into the net. For most of the match, he and Lopez camped back at the baseline. When Nadal moved up with Lopez serving, he stood virtually on top of the net, his foot too close to the alley, resembling a naive club player.
But for all that, Nadal is, of course, one remarkable tennis player and an even more voracious competitor. His trademark forehand flew viciously in all directions. So alert is Nadal that he was able to stick his nose forward just enough to strike fine volleys. Lopez, too, made his share of good shots.
Meanwhile, the Bryans were showing off genuine genetic choreography. As a Nadal drive clicked the net and skipped over where Bob had hoped to hit a forehand, he instantly yelled "yours" in time for Mike to step behind him and crack a backhand winner through the middle of the court. Mike's deft ability to vary paces and spins repeatedly exposed the Spanish duo's lack of doubles court-management skills.
Right to the end, tensions were high. The Bryans won the first set 6-4 and led in the second, but with Bob serving for the match at 5-3, he went down love-30. Could Nadal and Lopez summon up enough moxie to snatch the set and send it into the Russian roulette-style 10-point tiebreaker now used to decide ATP and WTA doubles matches? At last, at 11:12 p.m., it was match point -- and game point for the Spanish team. Bob served to Nadal. All night, he'd been swinging his lefty serve down the T to Nadal's forehand. This time, he let loose, snapping off a 129 mph ace wide to Nadal's backhand. It had been 67 minutes of great tennis. And the Bryans had accomplished something rare -- beating Federer and Nadal in the same tournament. Asked for a message to other singles players who wish to compete in the doubles, Bob said afterward, "Bring 'em on. Line 'em up. Knock 'em down."
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.