Wimbledon: Leander Paes has some of the fastest hands8 min read . Updated: 24 Jun 2016, 08:20 PM IST
Mike and Bob Bryan talk Olympics, rivalry with Paes, brotherhood and music
As tennis was making the delicate switch from clay to grass, Indian tennis seemed headed for an unsavoury incident. Rohan Bopanna, who, along with Mahesh Bhupathi, had refused to partner Leander Paes at the 2012 London Olympics, was again reluctant to pair with him. Ranked 54th in the world rankings, Paes, a veteran of six Olympic Games, looked likely to be sidelined again. But the All India Tennis Association stepped in strongly, naming Bopanna-Paes as the Indian entry for men’s doubles at the Olympics starting in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, in August.
The favourites for gold, the Bryan brothers—Mike and Bob—are literally miles away from such drama. Cocooned in their world of sibling rivalry and brotherly love, they are immune to the vagaries of life that their fellow doubles players face on tour.
“It will be good to see Paes play the Olympics," said Bob, the younger of the twins by 2 minutes, when I interviewed them earlier this month during the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart, Germany, which kicked off their grass-court season.
“His ranking’s low right now, but I know he’s played a lot of Olympics, and it will be a great story. As everyone knows, Leander has some of the fastest hands out there. If you hit a ball to him at the net, there’s a good chance it’s going to come back hard or as a soft drop volley."
Rio will be Paes’ seventh Olympics, the most any tennis player has participated in. And while he remains one of the fiercest rivals of the Bryan brothers, he is also plagued by the insecurities that contemporary doubles players face, given the constant chopping and changing of partners. In 2015, the Indian veteran notched up a tally of 100 different doubles partners. It was an indication not just of his durability, but of the unstable relationships of the time. Players now change partners according to surface, availability and comfort. The chemistry is most often forced.
In that world of constant change, the Bryans stand for stability and sanity.
“I would pack up if I wasn’t playing with him," says Mike. The 38-year-old identical twins have been pretty much inseparable since birth, giving up their singles careers for doubles, and have won 16 Grand Slams, 112 titles, an Olympic gold (in London, 2012) and the Davis Cup title with each other. The most successful doubles pair in history, they are also remnants of a time when it was a team game.
They radiate energy on the court: Moving constantly, rushing to the net, jumping, zigzagging past each other, chest-bumping. Their play is eye-catching. The Bryans are big guys with big personalities, just what the dying art of doubles needs to attract the crowds.
“It definitely helps to have someone whom you have played so much with. Being twins, we understand each other’s games intuitively," Mike adds.
But intuition alone hasn’t been able to get them over the line for the past 20 months. The Bryans haven’t won a doubles title since the 2014 US Open and, earlier this month, lost the French Open final, in three sets, to Marc Lopez and Feliciano Lopez, who were playing only their second Grand Slam tournament together. With doubles being populated by more singles players, the specialists are feeling the heat.
“Singles players bring different weapons, different strengths that you need to try and neutralize and pick on the parts of their game that are weak," says Bob. “Because if you give them time on their groundstrokes, that’s what they like to set up and hit it anywhere, and you are outplayed on the ground. Singles players have learnt how to play doubles now. And they don’t have a lot of holes in their game."
“All the good singles players pose a real challenge," says Mike. “Nadal is never fun to play. He’s got these big groundstrokes. Usually, when you play these big names, they have the crowd with them and they want to beat you. Nadal’s never beaten us, but every time he plays us you can see that he wants to beat us. He’s overdue, I guess." And they can’t even engage him in some banter in the dressing room.
“He doesn’t talk to us," says Bob. “He just hangs around with the Spanish guys."
Even as doubles is getting more reactive, the exuberant American twins are finding new ways to counter their opponents and the workload. They switched sides, the left-handed Bob taking over the ad side (left) and Mike moving to the deuce (right) court, at the beginning of the year, and have hired a physical trainer, Emile Hadad, to travel with them.
“This is the first time that we will have a trainer travel with us through the season," says Mike. “It’s going to be a long summer with the Olympics. From the French Open till we get to Rio, we pretty much play every week. So maybe we should not win as many matches."
At 38, the Bryans are still not the oldest doubles players around. Paes and Daniel Nestor, both 43, are flying the flag high for the older brigade.
“They are showing that it can be done," says Bob. “Age catches up with everyone; it will catch up with us, but we will keep playing till it is still fun. As you get older, you have to work harder at your fitness, put more energy in."
Having played together for more than 30 years of their life and having lived in each other’s pockets for so long—they shared a house and even a bank account at one time—the challenge for the Bryan twins is to keep it fresh.
“Sometimes, negativity seeps in, but overall the positives outweigh the negatives," says Mike. “As long as we are professional about it and don’t let sibling rivalry get in the way."
And how often does that happen?
“Daily. On court, off court. Cards!" he says; coach David Macpherson nods in agreement, like a man who has had to break up his fair share of fights. “You say stuff to your brother that you never say to anyone else, so stuff slips out, especially when the pressure builds up on the court. But now, past 30 years of age, we are starting to mature."
“We usually air it out; we never carry resentment for more than a few hours," adds Bob. “Thing with being twins is that it happens so often."
The Bryans had their most famous bust-up in 2006. After a nerve-racking 6-7, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 11-9 win over Amer Delic and Jordan Kerr in the first round of Wimbledon, they got into an argument that eventually led to a full-fledged fight with punches and kicks, and ended with Bob smashing Mike’s guitar. “Our coaches, family, wives, all of them get involved in making peace to make sure we have a handle on things and the right respect for each other," says Mike.
Being married and living on opposite coasts in the US has given them breathing space, but in tennis they are still essentially joined at the hip. “We still spend a lot of time on the road," adds Mike.
The one thing that gets them on the “same wavelength", they say, is music.
Tennis and music were the dominating features of their childhood. Their parents—Wayne and Kathy, who made four appearances at Wimbledon—owned a tennis club in Camarillo, California and encouraged active pursuits. That meant no television at home and no video games.
“My dad taught us how to play instruments when we were really young," says Mike, who plays the guitar and drums—Bob plays the keyboard. They have their own band—obviously called the Bryan Brothers Band—and even had world No.1 Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray singing to their tunes in their debut album, Let It Rip.
“A lot of the tournaments have music rooms," says Bob. “There are a few tennis players who are really good. (Former French Open champion) Gustavo Kuerten is a good bass player, (Belarussian doubles player) Max Mirnyi plays good guitar and sings a little bit, (women’s Australian Open champion) Angelique Kerber plays the guitar. We also have a charity band and play at a few player parties around the country to help other American players with their charities."
“It’s our second passion, and we really work hard at it," says Mike. “You can’t really compete in music, so hopefully we are always in sync."
More often than not, they also seem to move in perfect harmony on the tennis court. Bob is an inch taller and a lefty, little clues that help rivals separate the brothers, whose game is very often referred to as the “Attack of the Clones". And with the pressure of winning the Olympics finally off them, since they claimed gold in London in their third attempt, they are looking to make it another memorable summer.
“Losing the French Open finals was obviously disappointing. Some teams are happy to be in a Grand Slam final, but not us," says Mike. “But knowing that we had a few Grand Slam titles in the bag makes losing a little easier. Last year wasn’t great for us because we had some fitness issues. We are playing better; our games have got to a point where we are dangerous again."
The Wimbledon grass will once again test their creaking bodies. “It’s really tricky for the taller players because you have to stay so low on grass," says Bob. The Bryans have already won three championships at what is widely regarded as the biggest tennis stage in the world. Now, they are preparing for an encore.