We know from experience that family relationships can be complicated and we have all heard cautionary tales about getting into business with family members. Despite sharing DNA, Bob and Mike Bryan have managed to forge the most successful partnership in the history of the professional doubles game.
Through a business-like approach that emphasizes hard work and determination, the Bryan Brothers have produced a joint resume that makes an overwhelming case for them as the best doubles team and partnership in the history of the game.
Now 35 years of age and still playing some of the best tennis in their 15-plus year careers since turning pro in 1998, their list of accomplishments is staggering, including 94 doubles titles, 15 men’s doubles Grand Slam titles, a 21-4 career Davis Cup record and a Career Golden Slam as the first doubles team to hold all four major titles and the Olympic gold medal.
Just six titles shy of 100 career titles, the Bryans recently discussed this career milestone during a press conference to promote their appearance at Madison Square Garden as part of the BNP Paribas Showdown.
“I think that would be a fun number to hit. Who knows if we’ll get it this season or next, but that is a goal—to try to reach 100 before we retire,” said Mike Bryan. “I think we’ve been playing great tennis over the last few years and it’s attainable. It’s in our sights and we want to still play well at the Grand Slams and re-qualify for the world group in the Davis Cup.”
Perhaps most impressively, they’ve finished the ATP year-end ranking as the number one doubles team on Tour a record nine times between 2003-2013.
The Bryan Brothers’ story is a bright spot in an otherwise grim decade-plus long drought in American men’s tennis. It is also an anomaly. With the singles game garnering the lion’s share of the spotlight, doubles has been relegated to second tier status with most of the top men’s and women’s players having all but abandoned it (a notable exception being the Williams Sisters). This could be due to a variety of factors, including the demands, physical and otherwise, of the modern singles game, along with economic factors, with players lacking incentive to participate due to lesser prize money stemming from a lack of sponsorship dollars and television advertising revenue for the doubles game.
The reality today … in stark contrast to the 1980s when most top singles players also played doubles and the likes of John McEnroe won seven singles and nine men's doubles titles at Grand Slam tournaments, doubles has become a lost art. So what is it about the Bryan’s that has made them so great and able to sustain their level of performance at the very top of the men’s doubles game for so long?
“The Jensens [Luke and Murphy] popularized doubles back in the early 1990s. We loved watching them and became pretty close with them once we turned pro,” said Mike Bryan. “The Woodys [Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde] and all of the records they achieved, we were really inspired to be like them and break some of their records. But growing up, we loved [Andre] Agassi also. We worked on singles and doubles which a lot of guys don’t do. We spent at least a half hour to 45 minutes a day working on our volley which you don’t see juniors doing these days, but we’ve always loved doubles and at our first tournament at the age of six, we played doubles.”
Is it their specialization and perhaps technical or strategic superiority as a result, or is there something else at work here? It all comes back to family in the opinion of this writer.
A couple years back, following an Andy Roddick tweet where he jokingly predicted Roger Federer’s newborn identical twins would be future Wimbledon Doubles Champions, the Bryans weighed in with some advice by reflecting on what being twins represented and how its contributed to their success on the court. What came through above all was a sense that both Bob and Mike truly valued their connection
as something special and that they embraced it both personally and professionally.
From a very young age, the Bryans’ parents emphasized this approach and let their love for the game and partnership develop naturally. In a tennis landscape full of overbearing fathers, mothers and coaches, Wayne and Kathy Bryan immersed their sons without forcing them on court. With both parents having played professionally, and Kathy once rising to 11th in the U.S. Wayne and Kathy ran a tennis club and took the boys to professional tournaments, but let them develop their own appreciation for the game. Teamwork was stressed and they insisted Bob and Mike not play against each other in competition until the age of 17. As a result, they took turns forfeiting to each other.
“Tennis has done so much for us and we’re very grateful for the life that it has created for us,” said Bob Bryan. “It has taught us so many great lessons that we’re honored to be a part of such a great day and to increase exposure around the world is only a positive for us.”
And as they embark on yet another ATP season in 2014, they do have a goal in the not too distant future … to again represent the United States at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
“We want to stay healthy and make it to the Olympics, have a good showing, and maybe sail off into the sunset from there,” said Bob. “We’ll see how we feel, and who knows just how we’re going to feel two-and-a-half years from now. We’ll probably re-evaluate, but that’s our goal—make it there and go for another gold.”
In this age of the singles game, the Bryan Brothers’ success and partnership can be attributed in large part to a combination of hard work, mutual respect, passion for tennis and commitment to pushing themselves and each other to excel. They have also commented, at length, about the value of remaining grounded and humble despite their success, which they feel has paid dividends on the court. Their work, through The Bryan Bros. Foundation, a non-profit organization they established to identify and support charities and causes that help at-risk youth survive and thrive around the world, is a true testament to just that.
In all its work, the foundation promotes the ideals of sports—and tennis in particular—to emphasize the importance of hard work, dedication and perseverance.
Born only a couple minutes apart, Bob and Mike Bryan have been in sync ever since. Perhaps we can all learn a little something from their approach both on and off the court. Their results speak volumes.
Credit all photos to Adam Wolfthal