Twins Bob and Mike Bryan established a new record for pro tour doubles titles Sunday at the Farmers Classic tournament in Los Angeles, earning the 62nd tournament win of their distinguished career in their 100th final. Their tally includes eight Grand Slam wins (they've been most prolific at the Australian Open, where they've won four times), but as recently as last night they were already plotting how to bag more.
"We're not at an age when our games are slipping, or our health is questionable," Mike Bryan, the first-born (by two minutes) of the 32-year old twins told me, about eight hours after his record-breaking triumph. He was still wearing his match clothes, and had just finished a "whirlwind" of appearances and interviews. Mike was about to hop into the shower before heading over to a celebratory barbecue and party at a neighbor's home in Camarillo, Calif. "Maybe we can hunt down a few more Grand Slams, help keep the U.S. in the Davis Cup World Group...that kind of stuff. We're not going anywhere anytime soon."
This is a good thing for tennis, and particularly the sometimes beleaguered game of doubles, which was saved almost double-handedly by the chest-bumping, serve-thumping twin brothers.
Certain players are not just high achievers; they stand as transformational figures who helped the game grow and ford the torrents placed in its way by history. Jimmy Connors was a transformational figure, injecting blue-collar appeal (or is it appeal to blue collars?) into a nascent pro game starting in the early 1970s. Martina Navratilova was a transformational figure, setting a new standard for fitness and dedication for women tennis professionals. Venus and Serena Williams also transformed the game, implanting a consciousness of tennis in a vast swath of people who had previously been indifferent to the game. Andre Agassi reached out and touched young spectators like few pros, even prodigies, before him.
You can add the Bryans to that list, and for a more concrete reason. They came of age at a time when it was by no means certain that doubles would continue to exist. In the early years of this millennium, just as the Bryans were coming into their own as a dedicated doubles team, turgid economic conditions in tennis spawned a movement, supported by many tournament directors and tennis officials, to kill doubles. The pros who specialized in doubles were living in a kind of welfare state, clogging player lounges, sucking up hotel rooms (paid for by the tournaments), and collecting fat checks without bringing a great deal to the table.
The Bryans brought an entirely new level of dedication and passion to doubles, serving as competitors as well as advocates and impresarios. Their extreme work ethic and unapologetic zest for the game opened eyes and demanded respect as well as attention. Thus, when tennis officials toyed with the idea of emasculating doubles to the point where the game would be nothing more than tournament filler, the Bryans led the charge to save doubles. Their record and commitment to doubles cloaked them with credibility—and gave them a platform—that could not be ignored by men like Etienne de Villiers, who became the ATP tour CEO at a bleak time for doubles, in 2005.
With tournament directors claiming that the doubles obligation (it was part of every promoter's basic contract with the ATP tour) was onerous on one hand and an insurgency led by the Bryan brothers on the other, de Villiers came down on the side of doubles players. "He was our big savior," Mike told me. "He saw that there was a really nasty controversy brewing, and that we weren't going to back down. We weren't going to let them drive doubles out of existence. So he decided that we just needed to come up with some new approach to doubles, which included some changes in the rules and regulations." That included the embrace of the somewhat controversial match-tiebreaker that is now played instead of a decisive third set.
De Villiers was the decision-maker, but the Bryans were the unit that gave him something like moral authority. For Mike and Bob had re-energized competition in doubles, which resulted in the ensuing years in a rise in the quality of the game. As Mike said, "It was a painful process, but a lot of the fat that once existed in doubles was trimmed away. Today, there just aren't many guys out partying, taking those big first-round checks and free hotel rooms, living the life.... Those days are gone. The tour today is way too tough. You know these guys are serious when you see them traveling with their personal trainers, a masseuse, a regular entourage."
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"That made me feel great," Mike said. "We think that today doubles is a strong game. When we see a couple of juniors doing a chest bump, or some kid comes up to tell us that he and his partner just won a junior doubles event, we take pride in that. Right now, there are no low-skill doubles players around, and with the singles players playing more doubles, the game keeps getting better—and we need to keep improving as well."
The mark the Bryans shattered today was set by Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, the team known throughout tennis as "the Woodies." Woodforde was present all week at the Farmers Classic, which pleased the Bryans ("It was nice of Mark to be there," Mike said. "We hung out quite a bit with him, and he was right there, pushing us through to the finish line").
In his own post-match remarks, Woodforde said, "I know you two will continue for years to come. The floodgates will open entirely, so I know 70, 80 will come."
No matter how many titles the Bryans end up with, the achievement will not really overshadow the fact that they were not only great at the game they loved, but they also helped save it.
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