Commentary

Bryans set up Roddick to close the deal ... again

Andy Roddick is as good as it gets (8-0) when it comes to closing out Davis Cup ties. But part of the reason for his success is the fact that the Bryan brothers almost never lose their crucial doubles matches, writes Bonnie D. Ford.

Updated: September 22, 2007, 7:28 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | Special to ESPN.com

GOTHENBURG, Sweden -- If the intrepid Bryan brothers weren't tennis players, they'd be well-suited to emergency room work. They're a joined-at-the-hip M*A*S*H unit capable of operating under any conditions anywhere in the world.

Bob and Mike Bryan not only stop the bleeding, they refuse to lose the patient. They've won on clay in five countries in an era when American players usually get left in the red dust, and Saturday they prevailed on indoor carpet, breaking the serves and spirits of seasoned Swedish pair Jonas Bjorkman and Simon Aspelin, 7-6 (11), 6-2, 6-3.

The twins' win makes them 12-1 overall in team play, 6-0 on the road and 7-1 in situations when the U.S. has split its singles matches the first day. The team has won nine of its 12 ties during their tenure.

But numbers don't tell the whole story of the exuberant, mirror-image 29-year-old duo from Camarillo, Calif., a lefty-righty combination who meet in the middle and seldom get their feet, their rackets or their signals tangled. Although they've won five Grand Slam titles and want more, they flat-out admit they consider Davis Cup matches more important, the competitive equivalent of life and death.

It's only natural that two men born as a tandem would derive special energy from an event with a team format.

Bryan Brothers
AP Photo/Michael ProbstMike, left, and Bob Bryan have never lost on the road in Davis Cup play.
"Yeah, it's a fit," Mike Bryan said. "I've had this guy by my side my whole life. Haven't been apart for more than a couple days. We're a life team, and we're going to be together forever.

"I think it's the best thing you can do in tennis, playing for your teammates and your country. And we have the most fun these weeks. I mean, these are the highlights of our career right here."

The Bryans' win delivers a potential clinching opportunity into the capable hands of No. 5 Andy Roddick, another honorary surgeon who has shown skill at sewing up Davis Cup ties. He's undefeated in his eight opportunities to put the U.S. team in the next round.

Roddick will face 56th-ranked Thomas Johansson, whom he has beaten in all five of their previous matches, most recently in straight sets a few weeks ago at the U.S. Open. If Roddick's clinching streak were to end, the entire weight of the tie would fall on No. 7 James Blake, whose road record in meaningful matches is 1-6 and who would give Swedish captain Mats Wilander an interesting personnel choice for the fifth match.

Joachim Johansson's level of play Friday against Roddick -- especially in the first two sets, which went to tiebreaks -- certainly was high enough to earn him a shot against Blake despite the fact that it was Johansson's first match back after eight months off because of shoulder surgery. But Wilander also could opt for more experienced Bjorkman. Wilander said Saturday that he had not decided.

The Bryans' hair-raising first-set tiebreak, which included the most total points any U.S. Davis Cup team has ever played, gave U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe heart palpitations on the bench. The former French Open doubles champion pronounced it one of the best sets of doubles he'd ever seen, which covers a lot of ground.

"I couldn't think of any one of the four players that made a mistake both tactically and then making the shot," McEnroe said. "I mean, they all moved perfectly to the ball. They all covered the open court. They all covered for each other. If I wasn't so nervous, I would have been enjoying it a lot because it was just a great set of tennis.

"I haven't seen doubles played that well, particularly in such a big moment and throughout the tiebreak."

There were seven set points in the tiebreak. Sweden had three of them. The Bryans converted on their fourth opportunity when Aspelin whacked a volley into the net coming in behind his own serve.

That ended the anxiety-filled first set after 59 minutes, but the brothers appeared energized rather than drained. Bjorkman observed that each Bryan rose to the occasion by beefing up his relative weakness -- Bob, the big server, returned well, and Mike, whose return game is generally better, served hard and precisely.

"I think the reason we've … become more consistent in the last few years is that we're closing those margins a little bit," Bob Bryan said of the world's No. 1 team. The Bryans have won eight titles this season, including at the Australian Open.

Best W-L, USA Davis Cup
Chance to Clinch Tie
Player W-L
Andy Roddick 8-0
John McEnroe 6-0
Arthur Ashe 4-0
Jim Courier 5-1
Andre Agassi 4-1
Pete Sampras 3-3
Todd Martin 2-2
Both Swedes prefer to play in the ad, or left, side of the court, which is part of the reason they haven't teamed up much. On Saturday, Aspelin deferred to veteran Bjorkman and patrolled the deuce court, sometimes waggling his fingers behind his back when Bjorkman was serving to give him directional assistance.

Aspelin, a 33-year-old former Pepperdine standout who just won the U.S. Open title with Austrian partner Julian Knowle, said he didn't think the switch made any difference in the result.

"When they're serving that big, when they're making, both of them, a lot of high-percentage first serves and they're hitting the lines, it wouldn't have made a difference if I was on the backhand side," Aspelin said.

Bjorkman, 35, a longtime rival of the Bryans' on the ATP Tour, said the brothers not only played well but got most of the bounces they needed.

"Sometimes they hit it clean and sometimes they hit a lot of shanks," he said. "Today, those shanks went all in … they didn't give us any opportunities."

The Americans faced only one break point all match, in the second set, while the Swedes showed fortitude by saving 10 of 13.

A starkly serious Roddick followed every shot intently from the bench. During a couple of breaks in the action, he stood up and leaned over the sideline boards as if he were a hockey player about to hop over for a line switch -- an apt image in the somewhat dimly lit Scandinavium arena, where home ice for the local Frolunda Indians club lies underneath the temporary court.

"Andy said it was the most nervous he's ever been at a Davis Cup tie," Bob Bryan said. "Every time I looked over there, I could see him kind of shaking. He's a pretty high-strung guy. He probably would like to be out there serving it out himself."

With each win, the Bryans creep closer to what has long been considered an untouchable standard, the 14-1 record established by John McEnroe and Peter Fleming from 1979 to '84.

Perhaps more to the point, the Bryans have two-fistedly rescued the U.S. team from a lengthy era of inconsistency in doubles. Their dozen wins equal the number the entire country put together in the 11 years between John McEnroe's retirement in 1992 and 2003, when the Bryans debuted. In that time, some 17 players toiled in 21 combinations, going 12-17.

Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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