Mike and Bob Bryan: 'I'm better than him – I kick his ass in practice'
The Brian Viner Interview: They're the fun-loving chest-bumping, show-stealing Californian twins who rule men's doubles – welcome to the parallel universe of the Bryan brothers
Friday 19 June 2009
Wimbledon 2008 will be for ever remembered for the epic men's singles final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, although not by Mike and Bob Bryan, the 31-year-old twins from southern California who have been the world's top-ranked men's doubles pair for much of the past five years, and for a change found themselves on opposite sides of the net at the business end of a Grand Slam. Not that they could see each other too clearly as the mixed doubles final approached a conclusion.
"It was 9.20 and, like, pitch-black," says Mike. "But we all had plane tickets the next day and wanted to finish it."
"In the end no one could see a return," adds Bob. "It was, like, whiff city out there."
The mixed doubles title eventually went to Bob, and his Australian partner Samantha Stosur. But Mike still got half of Bob's winnings. "We made a vow a while ago that we would split everything equally from the mixed," explains Bob, "although I've calculated that I've won [he names a substantial six-figure sum] more than this guy."
"Don't put that on the record," says Mike.
"Why not?" says Bob, a glint in his eye. "All our money's together, it's one big mosh pit. I've contributed a little more to the pot, that's all. But we're at the stage where we maybe need to think about that. He's got a serious girlfriend now."
We are talking at Stoke Park in Buckinghamshire, home of a genteel grass-court tournament called the Boodles Challenge. But nobody ever associated gentility with southern Californians, and as white-suited men and high-heeled women clink Pimm's glasses on Stoke Park's immaculate lawns, it occurs to me that the Bryan brothers, whose signature mode of celebration is the ebullient chest bump, are just what the Boodles Challenge needs. "We picked it [the chest bump] up from the Jensen brothers actually," says Mike. "They played with so much energy, we idolised those guys. Then we came on tour and the older guys hated it, these two rookies bumping chests, not showing them respect."
It is a shame, I venture, that the Williams sisters have not picked up the habit. That could be a heck of a spectacle. "I played with Venus in the mixed at Wimbledon one year," says Bob, "and one time after we won a point she did come flying in to do a chest bump. I was quite scared, actually."
Chuckles all round. The Bryans are stimulating company, bright and funny despite being the nearest thing tennis has to a genetically engineered doubles pair. Their mother, the former Kathy Blake, was America's leading junior and became a top-30 singles player in the 1960s. Their father, Wayne, was also a professional player. And Wayne and Kathy owned and ran a tennis club, where from infancy their boys were immersed in the game. They won their first doubles competition aged six, but Wayne never allowed them to play each other in singles. When they were matched up in tournaments, they took it in turns to withdraw.
"It was a smart play," says Mike. "We both grew up dreaming of being No 1 in the world, but how are you going to do that if you're not even No 1 in your bedroom? It helped us to grow up motivated, because we both thought we were better, but nobody had the proof."
Bob had a better singles career, although never quite broke into the world's top 100. "I still think I'm better," says Mike, the elder by less than three minutes. "I still kick his ass every day in practice." Bob shoots him a withering look. "Do you?" he says.
Like Mike, Bob praises his father's motivational methods. "He was very smart at not just putting us on court and grinding us into the ground. He took us to college tournaments, to Indian Wells, to Agassi exhibitions. I first saw Agassi when I was nine or 10, just hitting the piss out of the ball, and I remember my parents saying, 'You've got to watch this guy, no one's ever hit the ball like this'. It was true, he revolutionised the power in the sport, but by the end of his career he wasn't hitting the ball nearly as big as everyone else. I played against him, actually, in one of my first pro matches, when I still had posters of him on my bedroom wall. He beat me, like, 6-4, 6-4, but I was proud of how I hung in there, and afterwards I told him how he was my idol growing up. He's kind of taken us under his wing. And there was one time he was on the Davis Cup team with us, which was cool."
The Bryans remain a vital ingredient in the United States Davis Cup team, no less than their more illustrious team-mates James Blake and Andy Roddick. "The Davis Cup is really the biggest stage doubles offers," says Bob. "It's pretty much the swing point of any Davis Cup tie."
In 2005 it seemed as though the Davis Cup might become the only big stage for doubles. ATP Tour officials tried to decree that players could only compete in the doubles if they were entered in the singles draw, which the Bryans, along with many other specialist pairs, considered a threat to their careers. They filed a lawsuit. "Pretty much every doubles player in the top 50 put their own money in, from a couple [of] hundred bucks to, like, $10,000," says Bob. "But we were lucky because the Tour then got a new CEO, Etienne de Villiers, a great guy, who knew that doubles was part of the show. The hard-core fan loves doubles. Of the guys who play recreational tennis, 90 per cent play doubles."
"Etienne became a good friend," adds Mike. "He took us to an Arsenal soccer game. It was the first soccer game we'd been to and it was a zero-zero tie. He was devastated."
De Villiers has now left his ATP role, but part of his legacy is the health of men's doubles. "It's at the best level it's ever been," says Mike. "There are big names on court, too. At Indian Wells this year we played Federer in the first round and Nadal in the second round. They don't have great doubles skills, but it's good to get the power of the groundies [the groundstroke specialists] versus finesse and quick hands at net."
Bob elaborates. "Doubles is a different sport almost," he says. "You've got to have poaching skills, and the return has to be more precise, you've got to hit it low at the guy's shoelaces. In singles you see Federer hit a big serve and the guy will just chip it back, but if you do that in a doubles game, the point's over. Also, you don't get too many young guys out there who can volley, because kids grow up banging from the baseline and volleying is a skill that takes a long time to develop. Doubles players get better with age. Leander Paes just won the French [Open, with Lukas Dlouhy] and he's 36."
Longevity also hones the communication skills doubles players need, and that the Bryans have almost by telepathy. "You never leave a hole down the middle in doubles, and we do that without even thinking," says Mike. "And we complement each other well. He's a lefty, with a huge serve, and I hit a pretty decent return."
Presumably, though, being twins can hinder as well as help? When's the last time they got furious with each other on court?
"Yesterday," says Bob.
"We have to be careful with our word selection on court," Mike adds, "but we button it up pretty well in the Davis Cup and the Grand Slams."
"What did I say yesterday?" Bob asks.
"You told me I sucked," Mike replies.
They smile together, as they have done everything together throughout their lives. After high school they went to Stanford University together, partly at the encouragement of a man who had graduated a year before them, Eldrick "Tiger" Woods. "Stanford had him recruit us to go," says Bob. "He, like, turned up at one of my matches in Michigan and said he'd love it if we went there. I remember asking him if he was going to turn pro, because there were rumours that Nike were going to give him $60m. And he said, 'I can't tell you,' nodding his head. The next week he was all over the news."
These days, the brothers share a house in their hometown of Camarillo, California. "But we train in Campbell, Florida," says Mike. "That's our residence right now. Put that in the paper. It will help for tax purposes."
Their contribution to the US Treasury, if hardly on a par with that of their fellow Stanford alumnus Woods, must still be substantial. Not since 2004 have they failed to win at least one Grand Slam title, and they estimate that their income combined is about that of a top 10 singles player, which makes them decidedly wealthy young men. Moreover, Bob's mixed doubles success has continued since Wimbledon last year; with Liezel Huber he won the French Open title earlier this month. But I suggest that for Britain's own Jamie Murray that must have stuck in the craw – wasn't Huber meant to be his partner?
"He didn't think he would get into the tournament because his ranking had dropped," claims Bob. "He was like, 'Liezel, you'd better go find someone else,' and one hour before the sign-in, she said to me, 'Let's go'."
If Murray is feeling hard done by, there was at least some revenge at British hands in the subsequent Ageon tournament at Queen's Club, when, amazingly, the Bryans were defeated in the first round by the little-known Colin Fleming, a Scot, and Ken Skupski, from Liverpool. Fleming and Skupski were respectively ranked 165 and 148 in men's doubles, but the Bryans, who enter Wimbledon next week as top seeds, expect those rankings to soar. "I expect them to be a real good pairing," says Mike. "They played well. And actually it wasn't so bad for us to take a loss and put our rackets down for four or five days."
When they put down their rackets they usually pick up instruments. Music is their great passion outside tennis, and they ask me to publicise the gig by The Bryan Brothers Band, in which Bob plays keyboard and Mike drums and guitar, a week tomorrow in Wimbledon village, nine until midnight. There seems to be some doubt about the venue, but they shouldn't be hard to find. They're tall, boisterous, and there are two of them, generally enjoying life. "We love London," says Mike. "Yeah, says Bob. "There's great food, great shopping, great TV, it's our second home."
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