Commentary

Part 2: Where do the Bryans rank?

Updated: June 26, 2010, 8:12 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Click to read Part 1 of the Bryans

For recreational or even club players, doubles offers an opportunity to break a sweat and have some fun. At the professional level, it's an extremely technical enterprise.

In the run-up to the final a few weeks ago in Madrid, the Bryans were working on some very specific (and top-secret) scenarios involving their arch-rivals -- the team of Serbia's Nenad Zimonjic and Daniel Nestor of Canada -- with David Macpherson, their coach of five years.

"They're always working on ways to break their serve," Macpherson said. "Since Nestor and Zimonjic are lefty and righty, they present a challenge. We'll work on returns against their peculiar pace and angle, work on specific poaches, on returns and on serves, trying to neutralize what they do best."

Said Bob: "It's such a small margin in doubles. There's a point where it doesn't come down to tennis."

The Bryans had lost five straight matches to Nestor and Zimonjic when they met in the Australian Open final in January. For the first time in seven years, they switched spots on the court, with Bob moving to the ad court and Mike taking the deuce court.

"Even though it's not our best return side," Mike said, "it took them awhile to figure it out. We broke them twice, and by then it was too late."

Patrick McEnroe saw this work ethic in 2004 when the Bryans were preparing for the Davis Cup finals against Spain. Not knowing who would represent Spain in doubles -- the Spanish had a roster featuring sizzling singles players like Rafael Nadal, Carlos Moya and Juan Carlos Ferrero -- the Bryans worked on two game plans: staying back against the singles stars, and serving and volleying against the less intimidating players. Although they allowed Ferrero and Tommy Robredo a total of only five games and won doubles, the United States lost 3-2.

"A lot of great doubles players -- the Woodies, my brother [John] -- their greatness is in their instinct," McEnroe said. "The Bryans' greatness was learned through practice. They spend hours and hours practicing every possible variable in a match."

The Bryans, like so many great doubles teams -- the Woodies, John McEnroe and Peter Fleming, Tony Roche and John Newcombe, and Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver -- are a lefty-righty duo. Bob is the left-hander, and Mike is the righty. This gives them great flexibility and creates all kinds of troubling spins and angles for opponents.

"That way, you can never get into a consistent groove, because you're not seeing the same serves," Woodforde said. "That's a big plus."

They are also, fortuitously and appropriately, supremely complementary -- greater than the sum of their shining parts. Bob is more athletic and serves bigger, so he always serves first (and most often). Mike has a better return, and is tactically more sound. Bob is better at hitting overheads out of the air; Mike is better when the ball bounces first. Usually, when you play a lefty-righty doubles team, you know which is which and can place shots accordingly. Against the Bryans, when points get a little squirrely, opponents can lose track of where the lefty or righty is -- advantage Bryans.

When Sam Querrey and John Isner played them in the final at Rome, the Bryans schooled them.

"They crossed on every serve and forced you to hit returns up the line," Querrey said. "They move better than anyone. They put a lot of balls in play, throw up lobs, junking the ball against our big serves. And they have great hands. First game in Rome, I ripped a return at Mike Bryan -- right at his toes -- and he hit a perfect half-volley."

Macpherson remembered the shot.

"Two-handed half-volley into the wind," he said, laughing. "That's the kind of things the boys do that border on the miraculous. It's like LeBron and Kobe -- it happens so often, it's not really miraculous."

Playing through

Intimate familiarity, of course, invariably breeds contempt. At the very least, the Bryans live (and thrive) with a crackling creative tension between them.

[+] EnlargeBob Bryan Mike Bryan
AP Photo/Rob GriffithWith a win at Wimbledon, Bob and Mike Bryan will break the record for career doubles championships (61), a mark they share with Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde.

"One thing we know in Davis Cup weeks -- they're going to be in a fight on Tuesday or Wednesday," said McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain. "They get after each other pretty good. Then, the day before the match, they're back together and ready to go."

Most profiles invariably include the laundry list of blowouts: a 2002 brawl (featuring a sucker-punch from Bob to Mike's midsection) and the 2006 meltdown at Wimbledon when the brothers traded punches; Mike kicked Bob, and Bob smashed Mike's guitar are the usual suspects.

Father Wayne hates these portrayals.

"You'd think they're swinging at each other with knives and crowbars -- the writers are fascinated by this stuff," he said. "It's just not so. There's less tension between them than any humans I've ever known."

Bob put it this way: "We're just honest. I've seen Mike play incredible tennis, and that raises your expectations. When he doesn't play like that, I'm going to say, 'You suck.'"

"And I'm going to go back at him," Mike said. "We say things that other teams won't say. If Nestor said 10 percent of the stuff we say to Zimonjic, they'd split up tomorrow.

"People don't understand how we can be like that, but it's your twin brother. You love him and he's your best friend. Ninety-nine percent of the time, things are great. But if it's 30,000 hours together, a few of those hours will go sour."

Mark Woodforde said he never took a swing at Todd Woodbridge.

"Probably felt like it a few times," Woodforde said, laughing. "That's a big reason for their success. Today, so many players jockey around, teams blow up quickly and they jump partners. The Bryans are willing to ride out the problems."

Macpherson calls their postmatch analysis "spirited discussions" and marvels at their ability to move on.

"They compete like heck," he said. "They break down a tough loss and, yes, all champions take losses hard. It kills them to lose. But then they let it go. It is a testament to their resilience."

And here is an arresting thought: At the age of 32, they actually seem to be getting better.

"This tennis over the last month has been our best," Mike said in Paris. "We've hit a new second wind, found a spark. We're not playing safe anymore. We just said 'Screw it, we're going to play huge.'"

"Yes," Woodforde said. "They are quite a bit better than they were in, say, 2005. That's the exact reason for longevity. When you're the best in tennis, singles or doubles, the goal at No. 1 is not just to hang on to it. You have to keep working, keep raising the bar.

"I don't see a dominant team coming in years. As long as they take care of things physically and keep the fire going, they should stay at the top."

In Paris, for the first time at any tournament, the twins lived in separate apartments.

Mike took an apartment near the Champs Elysees with his girlfriend of two years, Lucille Williams. Bob and Michelle Alvarez, who have been together for more than a year, were only a few blocks away from the tennis courts.

"We're feeling the heat," Mike said. "There's lots of things that need to get ironed out. But it's going pretty good right now."

Translation: It wouldn't be terribly surprising if the brothers get married before they stop playing. When will that be?

You'd think they're swinging at each other with knives and crowbars -- the writers are fascinated by this stuff. It's just not so. There's less tension between them than any humans I've ever known.

-- Wayne Bryan, father of Bob and Mike Bryan

"When our bodies start breaking down," Bob said. "So far, so good."

The trial separation didn't work well; the Bryans lost their first match to Brazilians Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares. It was the earliest they had exited a Grand Slam event in nearly nine years.

So, where do the Bryans rate in doubles history? Have they reached the status of the Woodies, who will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame after this summer?

Although their total titles are a dead heat at 61, the Woodies won 11 Grand Slam doubles titles, compared to eight for the Bryans. The Australians also won Olympic gold; the Bryans have a bronze. Davis Cup championships: 1-all.

The two teams met several times, when the Bryans were emerging and the Woodies were finishing up. What would happen if they met each other in their primes?

"Interesting," Woodforde said. "They bring in a little more power than what we had, but that goes into our strengths, the return game and volleys.

"In the end, I would like to say we would get there."

Mike and Bob paused uncharacteristically long before answering the same question.

"The Woodies could chop a team apart," Mike said. "They were a precision team. We're more of a power team. We win with blunt force.

"McEnroe, he was a magic man. Not sure how that would have gone."

Patrick McEnroe, not surprisingly, thinks the team of Peter Fleming and John McEnroe warrants consideration.

"It's hard for me to sit here right now and say [the Bryans are] better than my brother and Peter Fleming, or the Woodies," McEnroe said. "Their record in Grand Slam finals [8-8] isn't great -- or their overall finals record."

Although the Bryans are 5-0 in finals this year, the numbers for their career are 61-38. But looking at it the other way, their next final will be their 100th.

The Woodies -- that playful kick from Woodbridge aside -- have been gracious. They will be at Wimbledon playing senior doubles if the Bryans should happen to break their record.

"It's such a great moment, especially with Mike and Bob setting us as their benchmark," Woodforde said. "They looked up to us and learned from us. When we set the record, it was a cold day in Hamburg and the crowd didn't know the significance. We wished it had been more celebrated.

"It isn't until we stopped playing that we learned how significant that record is. We're the only guys who know how hard it was to win all those tournaments."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.