Twins nearing tennis history
Bob and Mike Bryan are the No. 1 doubles team in the world and on the cusp of history at the French Open. Greg Garber writes about their quest for history and the future of doubles on the tennis schedule.
PARIS -- Bob and Mike Bryan, forever joined at the hip, saunter into cramped Interview Room No. 3 at Roland Garros and find eight journalists waiting for them. Their mouths open, and for a moment -- and this is rare, indeed -- no sound comes out.
"It's only the second round, guys," Mike says, collecting himself.
"You got Andy Roddick questions or something?" says Bob, correctly sizing up the situation.
The Bryan Brothers get it. They are the 28-year-old twins from Camarillo, Calif., and they are the world's No. 1-ranked doubles team. And yet, for the first 15 minutes of a rambling 30-minute interview they will happily pontificate on Roddick's missing mojo, Rafael Nadal's unnerving, naked forays through the locker room and, of course, why Americans can't win on the red clay.
"When will an American win men's singles at the French?" Bob muses. "Maybe when you put it on hard courts -- so, maybe, never."
They understand theirs is a public service; they are hopelessly articulate and glib and, as doubles players, they have a lot of free time on their hands. They are the very best at their craft, but no one outside their insular world really seems to care.
For the record, the Bryan Brothers find themselves on the threshold of history. They have reached five consecutive Grand Slam doubles finals, matching the Open era record set by Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde. If they reach the final here -- they won their first Grand Slam championship here in 2003 -- they will set themselves apart. (On Saturday, they lost in three sets to Jonas Bjorkman and Max Mirnyi in the final.)
"Six finals, is that history?" asked Mike. "That would be sweet. Thanks for putting that in my head."
Added Bob, "Six finals that won't put us in Newport."
As in Newport, R.I., home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Maybe this will: After victories in the 2005 U.S. Open and this year's Australian Open, a win at the French Open would give them three straight Grand Slam titles, equaling the previous mark set by Woodbridge and Woodforde.
"Yeah," Mike said, smiling, "that would be extra special. The other tournaments are great, but for us it comes down to the Slams. We put everything we've got into the Slams."
They are the top seeds here and won their first-round match in a breezy 48 minutes, 6-1, 6-3 over the British team of James Auckland and Andy Murray. Their chief competition is likely to be the No. 2 seed team of Jonas Bjorkman and Max Mirnyi, who beat the Bryans in last year's taut, three-set final at Roland Garros.
In the pedestrian world of tennis, doubles rules. It is a very social game and, frankly, it's not as strenuous as singles. Eight-five percent of those who play tennis, it is said, play doubles. Doubles has always been part of the professional landscape, but rising costs have left tournament directors wondering if the events are worth the trouble.
The typical mid-sized tournament features 32 singles players and 16 doubles teams -- 32 athletes, matching singles. Each of these doubles players requires a hotel room, meals, transportation, locker room accommodations and most of the perks that go to singles players. But while singles stars like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt sell tickets, Kevin Ullyett, Daniel Nestor and Michael Lodra -- all top 10-ranked doubles players a year ago -- most certainly do not.
After coming to the inevitable conclusion that doubles wasn't pulling its weight, the ATP essentially fired the players. They passed rules that mandated singles rankings for doubles players, beginning in 2008, a move that would have eliminated virtually all of the doubles specialists; Bjorkman and Mirnyi are the only doubles regulars with formidable singles skills.
The doubles players, shockingly, were not happy.
"This time last year, everyone's talking and panicking," Bob Bryan said. "It was over for doubles."
The players sued and, wonder of wonders, the ATP capitulated. Etienne de Villiers followed Mark Miles as the head of men's tennis and he believed he could solve the fundamental problem: increasing visibility and, therefore, viability. Television is the window to both.
Traditionally, doubles is viewed as programming that fills in around singles matches. Previously, doubles would be relegated to the second match on a center court in a typical night program, and by that time the bulk of the crowd usually left with the singles players. Playing the doubles match first would have solved the crowd issue, but the uncertain (and sometimes unwieldy) length of doubles left broadcasters wary because they wanted their marquee singles matches to start at a prescribed time.
The ATP's solution? Several scoring initiatives that shortened matches. This year, doubles matches feature no-ad scoring, which means all deuce points are sudden-death affairs. And, if a match is tied at one set all, a match tiebreaker is played in lieu of a third set. According to the ATP, the result is dramatically shorter matches. Based on 478 doubles matches, the average has been less than 72 minutes, more than 18 minutes shorter than last year. Only two matches have run longer than two hours.
The Bryans haven't had the greatest luck in those tie-breakers, but they have no general complaints about the new scoring system. Luke Jensen, a 1993 doubles champion at Roland Garros with his brother Murphy, said that was predictable.
"I think they're hanging by their fingernails," said Jensen, a roving reporter for ESPN. "I think if you told them they had to stand on their heads and breathe through a straw, they'd do it -- if that's the only way you're going to keep your job."
At the same time, the ATP has added other initiatives with the hopes of elevating the profile of doubles. Tournaments have been asked to place at least seven doubles matches on their center courts -- according to the ATP, center court matches are up 46 percent -- and feature doubles advertisements in their programs.
With a mid-six-figure contribution from the Stanford Financial Group, the ATP has unveiled a new promotion, "The Doubles Revolution," that features the Bryans' chest-thumping celebrations.
At the end of the day, many people in tennis wonder if doubles will ever be cost effective. While there has been an effort to bring singles players into the game -- Nadal and Federer have dabbled in doubles -- the demands of the game will prevent it from happening.
Doubles proponents point to television as their savior, but there is no evidence to support the theory that if you air it, folks will watch. After the truncated Australian Open women's final between Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin-Hardenne drew a rating of .96 (approximately 850,000 homes), the doubles final won by the Bryans did a .4 (395,000 homes).
The Bryans say they are happy with the new approach, but some small things -- exclusive hotels for singles players, the quality of player gifts and scarce meal tickets for coaches -- haven't changed.
When the world's best doubles team opened at Roland Garros on Friday, they were not showcased on a show court -- far from it. They played on Court 17 -- the second-furthest court from the mothership, Court Philippe Chatrier.
Don't feel sorry for them, though. Even though doubles specialists generally make one-eighth of the prize money earned by their singles brethren, the brothers each took home nearly $750,000 last year. They are currently renting a pricey apartment along the Champs-Elysees.
They remain irrepressible and self-deprecating. Amid all the discussion of Americans failing on the red clay, the Bryans were asked how they were able to win in Paris.
"You don't have to move in doubles," Mike said. "You don't have to have legs like tree trunks."
When a journalist asked if they shared everything, they said they drew the line at girlfriends and toothbrushes -- but not, necessarily, underwear.
The ATP and de Villiers, the Bryans say, are heading in the right direction.
"He's treating us like people," Bob Bryan said. "That's something new."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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