On a chilly Thursday night, with the Rogers Cup focused on a centre-court match between Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, America’s charismatic and cheerful Bryan brothers – twins Mike and Bob – are playing a doubles match out on tiny Court 9, on the perimeter of Uniprix Stadium. There are the standard seven rows of bleacher seats you might see at any neighbourhood softball park, along with makeshift external stands that ingeniously permit passersby to wander over and watch a few minutes of world-class tennis for free.
On this night, roughly 225 people are taking advantage of this rare opportunity to watch the Bryans play the dynamic Spanish duo of Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez, including a homeless man who asks, “Is anybody good playing?”
Bob and Mike Bryan, 33-year-old twins from Camarillo, Calif., represent the gold standard in men’s doubles and this is a significant night for them – a chance for an unprecedented 700th match win at the ATP tour level. No one else has won even 600.
The Bryans advanced to the tournament semi-final Friday when their quarter-final opponents – India’s Rohan Bopanna and Pakistan’s Aisam-Ul-Haq Quereshi – retired from the match at 3-3 in the first set when Bopanna turned his ankle and couldn’t continue.
The Bryans will next play Tomas Berdych and Florian Mayer, who beat the Murray brothers, Andy and Jamie, 6-4, 6-4.Verdasco and Lopez are both highly ranked singles players, and sometimes when players are eliminated from the singles side of a tournament, they go through the motions in doubles, as if they have a taxi waiting to rush them to the airport as soon as they lose.
But not this night. The Bryans need to fight for the match and they finally get it when Lopez, cursing in Spanish, double-faults on match point. Before the small crowd can disperse, tournament organizers stage an impromptu victory celebration, presenting the Bryans with a cake to mark their milestone victory. Once the obligatory photo opportunity finishes, the Bryans move to the edge of the court and begin slicing up the cake for anyone who stuck around.
“Who wants the 700?” Bob asks. “You can sell it on eBay,” Mike adds helpfully. In less than 10 minutes, they charm the crowd, two staunch advocates for their specialty, the poor stepchild of professional tennis.
Doubles has never had the cachet – or the purses – associated with singles play, and as a result, only the top handful of players in the world make a living at it. It is a Catch-22 sort of thing; the field in Montreal is limited to 24 teams, and lots are pickup pairs such as Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez, playing together mostly so Nadal could get a match under his belt before the singles draw began. It results in a limited field and doesn’t permit players to break through all that often, even if they were of a mind to specialize in doubles the way the Bryans did so many years ago.
The Bryans have been profiled on 60 Minutes, and in publications as varied as Sports Illustrated and Making Music magazine. Mike is older by two minutes, and Bob taller by three centimetres. They have survived any number of obstacles, from firing their father as their coach, to changes in the doubles rules, to marriage (Bob married his long-time girlfriend, Michelle Alvarez, last year) to the occasional fight in the locker room.
This willingness to engage in fisticuffs is, according to Mike, one of the reasons their partnership has lasted since 1995, when they made their tour debut in a loss to Canada’s Grant Connell and Patrick Galbraith at the U.S. Open.
“We can kind of vent on each other after a loss,” Mike says. “We don’t build resentment as other teams do. That’s why we haven’t split up. Other teams can’t make it through the tough times, whereas we’re brothers. We’re always going to stay loyal. We can let each other have it on the ride home and then clean the slate and start fresh.”
So when Sports Illustrated, citing unnamed sources, reported last month that the brothers had had a knock-’em-down, drag-’em-out fist fight in the locker room after a semi-final loss at the French Open, people wondered if it was true.
“Oh yeah,” Bob says. “Every word.”
“And there’s been probably a couple more that have happened since,” Mike adds. “Worse ones since then.”
The Bryans echo a point the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, repeated throughout the Vancouver Canucks’ run to the Stanley Cup final: As much as people would like to believe otherwise, there is nothing psychic about their ability to read off each other.
“It just comes from playing together since we were four years old, thousands of matches, and just being around each other at home, pretty much every day of our lives,” Bob says.
Off the court, the two are virtually identical, but on the court, they are easier to tell apart if only because Bob is a lefty and Mike hits from the right side. They have won the Rogers Cup three times, most recently in 2010, and this year, when they won Wimbledon, that gave them the 11th major of their careers. At 33, they are showing no signs of losing their edge or their willingness to compete. They point to Daniel Nestor, the Canadian doubles star, approaching his 40th birthday and still competitive on the circuit, as a reason to keep going for as long as they can.
“Nestor’s longevity has been amazing,” Mike says. “He’s got a great body for the sport. Relatively injury free throughout his whole career. Lanky. A nasty serve that’s kept him really dangerous for all his years.”
At Wimbledon, the Bryans were asked who among the new generation of players might make a good doubles specialist, and they offered up Canada’s rising singles star, Milos Raonic, as a perfect candidate.
Sadly, they know that as long as players such as Raonic thrive in singles, doubles will be mostly an afterthought. On Thursday, the match that preceded them on the outside court featured the world’s No. 1 singles player, Novak Djokovic, playing doubles with fellow Serb Janko Tipsarevic. They drew only a couple of hundred more spectators than the Bryans did.
“But it’s late, and it’s cold, and Federer’s playing a few yards away,” Mike says.
“That’s where the experience comes in,” Bob adds. “You’re just trying to create some kind of magic out of nowhere.”
That’s the Bryans for you, serving up magic, winners and cake. All in a night’s work.