After their semifinal victory — on the Fourth of July, no less — these 35-year-old identical twins from California are one win away from becoming the first team in the history of Open-era tennis to hold all four major titles at the same time.
“The Bryan Slam,” they’ll call it, but don’t look for that news to knock baseball, hot-dog-eating contests or Andy Murray out of the headlines in either the United States or Britain.
The Bryan brothers play doubles, and despite their history making success, they live in a world where their games aren’t fully appreciated and fame is hard to come by.
“The hardcore tennis fan loves doubles, but the casual sports fan doesn’t know enough about it,” Mike Bryan said. “They love stars. Doubles players aren’t stars.”
If their list of accomplishments belonged to a singles player, they’d be considered among the best of all time.
* Their 14 Grand Slam tournament titles would tie them for second with Pete Sampras.
* Their 310 weeks at No. 1 would be eight more than Roger Federer’s record.
* Their 90 tournament titles would rank third behind Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl.
Instead, they must “settle” for holding the record for doubles in all those categories. They’ve raked in more than $20 million in prize money over their 15 years as pros and have gone 21-3 in Davis Cup matches — a near sure thing for a country that, for the first time in 101 years, didn’t have a male singles player in the third round of Wimbledon and also saw its last woman go out Wednesday.
Quite a resume. Place them outside a tennis tournament, however, and usually, they can walk down the street in peace.
“It’s the names and the stars,” said Jack Nicklaus, the 18-time major golf champion, who was at Wimbledon this week and watched the Bryans play. “The singles players are really good, no question about that. If the doubles players were good enough, they’d be playing singles. To a large degree, I think that’s the way most people look at it.”
Though it struggles for air time, doubles can be plenty entertaining — the last bastion of 21st-century tennis where a net game, teamwork and a couple of reflex volleys can still carry the day. Nearly two-thirds of frequent recreational players in the U.S. play doubles, according to the most recent study by the U.S. Tennis Association. At the pro level, it can be quite an entertaining show, as was the brothers’ 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 victory Thursday over the newly formed team of India’s Rohan Bopanna and France’s Edouard Roger-Vasselin.
“I think they get overlooked and I think the top current singles players very, very seldom play doubles,” said Pam Shriver, whose 8½-year partnership with Martina Navratilova produced 20 Grand Slam titles. “I think doubles have always taken a back seat since Open tennis and prize money settled it all.”
The lone exception: The Williams sisters, who’ve combined to win 13 Grand Slam doubles titles.
In their semifinal victory Thursday, the Bryans improved to 8-1 lifetime in Wimbledon five-setters. Their success in the close ones — and the not-so-close ones — makes sense, considering they’ve been together forever, literally, while other teams come and go, sometimes changing partners by the week.
The Bryans’ opponents in Saturday’s final will be Croatia’s Ivan Dodig and Brazil’s Marcelo Melo, yet another one of those “honeymoon teams,” as the Bryans like to call the new teams.
“The sibling relationship might not even hold up under this amount of travel and stress,” said Bob Bryan, who plays lefty, while his brother plays right-handed. “It’s maybe only the twin relationship that can stand this kind of test of time. I definitely don’t think just a normal partnership can hold up under this many years of ups and downs and finger pointing.
“Unless you have the confidence that your partner’s not going to be looking around for someone else after a heartbreak loss. I mean, that’s what we have. We have that loyalty that no matter how bad I return during a stretch, I know he’s not going to be talking to (Daniel) Nestor, or texting Nestor,” a 40-year-old Canadian doubles specialist.
Indeed, the twins have been through it all together.
When they were kids, their parents forbade them from playing singles against each other, forcing them to take turns defaulting to each other when they were matched up. Bob was the top-ranked player in U.S. boys’ 18s in 1996. In 1998, he won the NCAA singles, doubles (with his brother) and team titles at Stanford.
“I slept with that trophy,” Bob Bryan said. “I asked coach, ‘Can I have it for one night?’ It couldn’t get any sweeter than that.”
But really, it could.
Deciding their future was brightest as a doubles team, Bob largely gave up singles to focus on the partnership. Last year, the Bryans added an Olympic gold medal to their stash. One more victory at the All England Club would make it a Golden Slam — all four Grand Slam titles plus the Olympics.
They key to it all, says Mike, is “you’ve got to like your partner, first.”
And they do, on and off the tennis court. The do their trademark chest bump after winning a particularly good point, or a match — and they have won 23 in a row. On occasion, they play in a band named after themselves that, according to their website, “jams at tour stops, clubs, and charity events as they travel around the world.”
“It’s great to be on equal footing,” Mike said. “You don’t want to be coached by someone. You’ve got to be pumping up your partner, making your partner better.”
The long-term goal for the Bryans is to stick around through the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, though it gets harder as the years go by — not only physically, but logistically, as well. Mike recently got married. And Bob’s wife, Michelle, is pregnant with the couple’s second child. Their first, 17-month-old Micaela, has a Twitter account with nearly 11,000 followers. (Bob swears she types in the tweets herself.)
“A lot of players are usually on their way out of the game when they have that second kid,” Bob said. “We’ll give it our best shot.”
Almost every time they step onto the court, they will be both the favorite and an undercard. They accept both fates with equal enthusiasm.
“As an athlete, you’ve got to cherish those moments,” Mike said. “We’re on the road and you can get mentally tired of those moments when you’re playing week in, week out ... having guys gun for you because you’re the No. 1 team. But then you go home and you realize you need that adrenaline rush, and you’re itching to get back out there.”