Americans who enjoy getting down and dirty
While American men annually struggle on the red clay at Roland Garros in the singles draw, the Bryan brothers manage to prosper on the terre battue.
PARIS -- Where other American players see quicksand, Bob and Mike Bryan see paydirt.
The 29-year-old twins have captured championships on clay this season in Houston, Monte Carlo and Hamburg. With six titles total in 2007, they've reclaimed the top spot in the ATP doubles standings they held all of last year and are cruising through the best season of their career.
Having hit for the Grand Slam cycle -- they've won all four, and repeated in Australia this year -- the Bryans have reloaded and taken aim on the second French Open title to add to the one they won in 2003.
If the draw plays out to form, they'll have to beat the team that has denied them in the final at Roland Garros in each of the last two years, Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman and Max Mirnyi of Belarus.
The Bryans say their confidence on red clay began to build when they were shrimpy 13-year-olds. (Now 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-3, respectively, Bob and Mike were listed at 5-foot-4 and 104 pounds when they got their driver's licenses.) They went undefeated for six years in the U.S. junior clay court nationals.
But as adults, the Bryans said they've had to become much more serious students of the surface to master it -- and that education required a major time investment. In 2002, when they committed to playing a full European clay-court schedule, they traveled to Acapulco for some early-season exposure to dirt and wound up winning their first clay title. They tweak their drills to suit the surface as well.
"People say you either have it or you don't, but I think you can learn it," Bob Bryan said. "You have to practice and put in the work and commit to sliding and the clay-court style which a lot of Americans don't do. You have to change your game. Go out there and work sliding to forehand, sliding to backhand. Get more arc over the net. If you're fast, use your legs to win. Hit more kick serves.
"I was watching [Argentina's Gaston] Gaudio, one of the best clay-court players. When he gets hit out wide to the forehand, he slides to it and stops, hits it and then uses that right leg to get back into the middle of the court. The Americans hit it, then they run and slide and stop and then they're gone, the point is basically over."
That adaptability has become a habit. The brothers played an uncomfortably close Davis Cup quarterfinal match against the big-serving Spanish tandem of Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez on indoor hard court last April and now say in retrospect they would rather have met them on clay, "because you don't have the one-shot point," Mike Bryan said. "It gives us more time to get into the point."
The Bryans know their success on clay makes them the odd guys out in American tennis at the moment. Their close friends Andy Roddick and James Blake, along with seven other U.S. men, lost in the first round here.
"It's just tough for them, because they win on the hard court playing this aggressive style which they grew up playing and which maybe is going to translate to a U.S. Open title, like Andy," Bob Bryan said. "You almost have to change your game for these three tournaments they play, which I don't know if they're ready to do to win the French."
Having said that, the brothers are convinced Roddick had a very unlucky draw and Blake's loss was more of a matchup problem than anything else.
"I thought James played well in Rome and Hamburg and he played a lot of matches in [the world team championships] in Dusseldorf," Mike Bryan said. "I thought his game was coming along nicely, I thought he was figuring it out and was going to put in a good result here."
Figuring out the second-ranked team of Bjorkman and Mirnyi in Paris, if both duos march through the opposition to next Saturday's final, would be sweet.
"There are six teams that have beaten us multiple times," Bob Bryan said, not that he's counting. "We go in there with the utmost respect."
The same two teams have contested a total four Slam finals, with the Bryans winning at the 2005 U.S. Open and this year's Australian Open.
There are no secrets between the teams at this point, said the 35-year-old Bjorkman, who has made a sprightly run to the singles round of 16. "It's probably just the momentum, and who is the best for that day," Bjorkman said. "Most likely the one who wakes up and feels better.
"I think they've always been good on clay they keep improving, and that's what we, obviously, try to do as well."
Bob Bryan said he thinks he and his brother are "the toughest out possible" at this point. "Our confidence is through the roof," he said.
If the brothers' current stash of 39 doubles titles someday grows to challenge the all-time record of 61 held by Australians Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, it could be in large part because they were willing to get down and dirty.
Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who is covering the French Open for ESPN.com.
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