Bryan brothers push into semis
PARIS -- From the time they were gangly 12-year-olds -- rooting hard for Rick Leach and Jim Pugh at a United States-Mexico Davis Cup match in San Diego -- the Bryan twins have seen themselves wrapped in red, white and blue.
When their moment finally arrived 13 years later, the still-gangly brothers, Bob and Mike, met it. It was a 2003 qualifying match in Bratislava, Slovakia, an embarrassment for a nation with more Davis Cup titles (31) than anyone. Andy Roddick had lost his singles match and the score was tied at 1-all.
"If they lose, we're probably out of Davis Cup for a year," said Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain. "P-Mac is probably out of a job. The pressure on them was incredible.
"I told them before the match, 'You're our team, no matter what happens.' I wanted them to know that, win or lose, they were going to be the guys, our doubles team for the future. They said, 'Let's go. We've been waiting 25 years for this moment.' "
They won, of course, and they are still America's team. They have won all three of their Davis Cup matches -- are 9-for-9 in sets -- and are a big reason the United States finds itself in the Davis Cup semifinals this September against Belarus.
Before that, though, there are three Grand Slam events to contemplate. The 2003 French Open opened the door for them. A year later, the natives of Camarillo, Calif., are back at Roland Garros defending their title.
The No. 1 seeds (and the No. 1 team in the world) met No. 7 seeds Wayne Black and Kevin Ullyett, the Zimbabwean team that beat them two weeks ago in the Hamburg final, in the quarterfinals on Monday.
It was a wild, cathartic match -- even for the Americans. The Bryans prevailed, barely 6-7 (6), 7-6 (3), 7-5. The victory was particularly satisfying because the Bryans had lost five straight matches to Ullyett and Black "They had a big edge on us," Mike said later.
"We had to come out and match their energy," Bob said, completing the thought. "It's good to get that gorilla off of our backs."
When it was over, Mike leaped into his brother Bob's arms. Or was that the other way around?
"No," Mike said. "Bob always picks me up."
In the semifinals they play the winner of French pair Michael Llodra and Fabrice Santoro versus Mark Knowles and Daniel Nestor.
Watching the Bryan brothers play can be an exhausting experience.
Most players sit stone-still during changeovers, looking straight ahead, zealously conserving energy. The Bryans' legs jiggle at the speed of a hummingbird's wings -- so fast you almost can't detect that they're moving. When they're both standing behind the baseline to receive serve, they bounce up and down, almost spastically, and -- here is the eerie part -- they stop at exactly the same time, as though choreographed. The leaping, screaming chest thump is the coup de grace, another impressive piece of footwork and concentration.
"Believe it or not, we don't practice it," Bob said. "We started it in college [at Stanford], and we break it out every once in a while."
Doubles, at the highest level, is played by two partners with a single mind. So what could be better than partners who share the same DNA?
Their parents, Wayne and Kathy, are both tennis instructors. The two boys were out there hacking at the age of 2. Mike, for the record, is two minutes older than Bob. It's quite easy to tell them apart because Bob wears beads around his neck. Oh, and Bob plays left-handed while Mike plays right-handed. Their energy level, frankly, is a little frightening.
"They get jacked up for breakfast," McEnroe said.
Sometimes, there is too much energy. There was a sucker punch, from Bob to Mike's mid-section two years ago in Cincinnati. There is a more or less running dialogue on the merits of their respective efforts. Their relationship, they say, is a lot like a marriage. But how many people work with their spouses?
"Who says we don't kill each other all the time?" Mike asked. "There are times when it crosses your mind. But if we lost it in the quarterfinals of the French Open, we'd never forgive ourselves."
More than anything, McEnroe has been impressed with their work ethic. The stab reflex-volley, the synchronized switches, the natural coordination of their movements -- it all happens in practice first.
"They never surprise you, which is a good thing," McEnroe said. "When you're in a Davis Cup match, the pressure can be unbelievable. It doesn't change them."
By not changing doubles teams with every tie, McEnroe is building some continuity into their connection. When they played in the quarterfinals against Sweden, it was the first time in 13 years that the same two men played Davis Cup doubles for the United States for a third consecutive match. In a span from 1996 to 2002, the United States put 13 doubles teams on the court. Their record in 16 matches was 4-12. The participants, in various combinations: Pete Sampras, Alex O'Brien, Todd Martin, Jonathan Stark, Richey Reneberg, Patrick Galbraith, Jim Courier, Rick Leach, Jared Palmer, Chris Woodruff, Jan-Michael Gambill, Justin Gimelstob, Don Johnson and even Patrick McEnroe.
"It takes a lot of pressure off Andy and the singles players," Bob explained. "They think we have our point in the bag."
"Well," said Mike, "I'm not really sure if they think that ..."
The Bryans made their first professional impression in 1999, reaching the final at Orlando and winning three Challengers. In 2001, they won four ATP titles and advanced to the semifinals at Wimbledon. They didn't drop a set on their way to the French Open crown last year, and they won the year-end Tennis Masters Cup in Houston.
They have, despite themselves, matured.
"That's the biggest difference," McEnroe said. "Before, they were content to beat you 6-4, 6-4. Now, if they can, they'll steamroll you 6-2, 6-1. They will absolutely stomp you if they can."
Now, will we see the chest thump in Thursday's semifinals?
"We save it for the big matches," Mike said. "Maybe you'll see it on Saturday -- hopefully."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.