Commentary

A luxury few teams can afford

The dynamic doubles duo of Bob and Mike Bryan forced Patrick McEnroe's hand with their play, and they've done nothing but vindicate the captain's decision to put them on the team ever since.

Originally Published: December 1, 2007
By Bonnie D. Ford | Special to ESPN.com

PORTLAND, Ore. -- They seem too good to be true -- too likeable, too modest, too sincere, too gifted. Their story certainly seems far too improbable to be non-fiction. Yet Bob and Mike Bryan are indisputably three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood athletes, born with a shared drive nestled somewhere among the other matching chromosomes in their genetic makeup.

Saturday, to practically no one's surprise, the twins dispatched the makeshift Russian duo of Nikolay Davydenko and Igor Andreev in straight sets without losing a single service game, completing the sweep that gave the United States its first Davis Cup victory in 12 years.

After a winning match point, the brothers customarily run full-speed at each other to execute one of their famous flying chest bumps. Yet after Bob Bryan uncorked the volley that sealed things, he did a double-take, looking first at Mike and then back at the U.S. bench, as if to say that for once, it was about much more than the two of them.

The rest of the team came sprinting at the Bryans as if sprung from a cage, hurdling the net one by one and forming a jumping, dancing knot of athletic glee. All anyone could see from the stands were white ballcaps, riding the crest of a wave that has taken seven years to roll in.

If it sounds corny, so be it. The Bryans are 13-1 in Davis Cup play now, just one shy of equaling the won-loss record for the best U.S. Davis Cup tandem ever, and the reason for that is that they connected with a captain and a bunch of singles players who trusted them almost as much as they trust each other.

Few countries have the luxury of fielding a real doubles team. Some eschew it, preferring the mix-n'-match options of four singles players. The Bryans literally forced captain Patrick McEnroe's hand with their play, and they've done nothing but vindicate that choice ever since.

The flip side of all this love is what it frontloads onto these 29-year-olds from Camarillo, Calif., who burn with a single-minded competitiveness not immediately apparent from their good-natured exterior.

"It's been the worst anticipation waiting for this match," Mike Bryan said. "The pressure is unbelievable."

Bryan Brothers
Wayne BryanBob, left, and Mike Bryan were 11 years old when they went to their first Davis Cup tie in 1990.
The Bryans attended their first Davis Cup when they were 11, outside San Diego. In their relentless way, they tracked down a U.S. doubles player, Rick Leach, who was one of their idols. Leach gave them an encouraging word or two, probably never realizing how seriously they would take it.

These guys are as literal as it gets. They really, really mean it when they say they've worked for this moment since they were those shiny-eyed little kids. The self-imposed pressure they bring to this event is considerable, but it mounted to an almost unbearable level here in Portland because they knew how much their teammates were depending on them to do what they always seem to do.

Mike said he resorted to a prescription sleep aid to get his rest leading up to the match. Bob's tension all went to his gut. When the players first spilled in for their post-match press conference, reeking of the beer and Champagne that stained their T-shirts, the Bryans weren't there. Bob snuck in last, dressed in fresh sweats and looking a little peaked.

"I just puked my guts out in the shower about 10 minutes ago," he said. "I've been nauseous for three days. I'm not going to try to hide that my stomach was doing back flips. I had a circus of monkeys in my stomach just playing tambourine in there.

"I mean, it was a lot of emotion, especially running out for those intros with the crowd going nuts, fireworks, the whole deal. It was tough to stand on two feet without your knees knocking. It's sometimes hard to just play the ball. You know all that's riding on the match. You got guys that you want to win for."

Leave it to one of the twins to say exactly what was on his mind, with no varnish applied. What you see with the Bryans is what you get. They've been tireless salesmen for their game, and especially for Davis Cup, granting interviews on the subject no matter how tired they are, no matter how repetitive the questions.

I've been nauseous for three days. I'm not going to try to hide that my stomach was doing back flips. I had a circus of monkeys in my stomach just playing tambourine in there.

-- Bob Bryan

At a press conference a few days ago, Mike Bryan fielded the inevitable query respectfully, as if he were hearing it for the first and not the thousandth time.

"Our differences, I mean, we're different," he said, turning to Bob. "You're more right brain, I'm more left brain. I'm a little more organized and mathematical. He used to copy my math homework, I used to copy his English homework. He's a little more artistic. He likes to do music recording and painting and stuff."

As anyone who has followed the twins' story knows, Wayne and Kathy Bryan, who owned a tennis club when the boys were growing up, didn't allow them to compete with each other as junior, but there was a lot more to raising them than that.

"If one was picking something up more quickly than the other, we'd spend time with the other to make sure he caught up," said Kathy Bryan, who dealt with her own nerves by staying back in southern California and watching parts of the match with a mute button on. "We always stressed their individuality.''

Tennis writers consult with each other after points to make sure they're giving shot credit to the right guy; the Bryans' game can be so blurry-fast that it's sometimes hard to remember whether the lefty (Bob, big server) or the righty (Mike, great returner) struck the ball.

McEnroe, an accomplished doubles player himself, says that Bob wants less input at practice than Mike. Mike is an inch shorter and a tad lighter than Bob, partly due to the food allergies that threatened his health in college; he now follows a strict gluten- and lactose-free diet.

But the brothers' shared attributes and mutual devotion are what draw people to them. Even their parents remain awed sometimes.

"If they lost their tempers, it never lasted,'' Kathy Bryan said. "If Wayne or I ever got upset with one of them, the other would defend his brother. They're very devoted to each other. They're actually a great example of what a marriage should be. They do influence each other -- they pull each other toward the middle, they push each other forward, and I think they have a very healthy relationship."

Davis Cup is the perfect setting for the Bryans. Part of that is self-explanatory: The doubles match is the linchpin of the competition, where the see-saw sits or tips. Yet we'd venture to say that the fit is this perfect because the Bryans' brand of togetherness is something their teammates can and have used.

Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor who is covering the Davis Cup for ESPN.com.

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.