The moment Mike Bryan and Edouard Roger-Vasselin secured the win in the first round of the Citi Open men’s doubles tournament, Bryan raised his arms and moved toward the Frenchman. Then, the defending Wimbledon champion had a minor dilemma: What now?
“Okay, should I chest-bump this guy?” Bryan said after the match. “I’m looking at him, not sure. Are we going to do this?”
Instead, the two hugged briefly before walking to the net to shake hands with their opponents, Nikola Mektic and Alexander Peya. Then they went their separate ways.
Usually, Bryan’s winning celebration would be automatic. He has won 16 Grand Slam doubles championships and more than 100 ATP titles with his identical twin, Bob, whom he famously chest-bumps after every victory. The two have played the Citi Open together 14 times. But this year, Mike is without his usual partner. In May, Bob had a hip injury that shut down the rest of his season.
As Mike began play at the Citi Open, his brother was in New York. The next morning, Bob had surgery that resurfaced his hip. The pain from the injury had not subsided, leaving surgery as the best option and leaving Mike without his partner.
“There’s just a lot of uncertainty,” said David Macpherson, coach of the Bryan brothers. “It’s hard. [Mike has] just made the best of it.”
Finding doubles partners has been like a dating game, Mike said. Players might text him, and he weighs their strengths with his to find the best fit. Mike has had five partners in the six tournaments since Bob was sidelined, but after the Citi Open, he plans to stick with Jack Sock through the rest of the season.
With Sock, Mike won the doubles title at Wimbledon last month — the 17th Grand Slam doubles title of his career and his first without Bob. So in those moments of recent success, such as his Citi Open first-round win on Wednesday, lies a twofold emotion for the Bryan family.
“We’re elated that Mike wins, and we’re depressed that Bob can’t play,” said Wayne Bryan, the father of the two 40-year-olds.
In September 2003, the identical twins climbed into a shared first-place position in the ATP world rankings and have remained at or near the top since. Like their DNA, their point totals are almost always identical because they’ve exclusively played with each other.
The Bryan brothers won the 2012 Olympics and played 76 consecutive Grand Slam events together. Their identity on the court has never been individual. Even on Twitter, Mike’s handle is @bryanbrothers and Bob’s is @bryanbros.
“That’s what’s fun about doing this — when you’re sharing it with somebody,” Mike said.
If you could manufacture an environment conducive to building a dominant doubles partnership, the Bryan household would seem to be an ideal laboratory. The brothers are mirror-image twins, meaning Mike is right-handed and Bob is left-handed, which is favorable for doubles. They grew up in a tennis family, and their parents, both former pros, owned a tennis club in California. They didn’t have a TV at home, but the parents would let the sons watch major tennis tournaments at their club.
As juniors and in college, Mike and Bob continued to play singles, but they knew doubles would be where they could create something special. In doubles, success arises from communication and chemistry, which came naturally to the Bryans. After years of playing together, Mike said he knows exactly where Bob will hit the ball in important moments. He knows what to say to him and how he’ll handle pressure. While watching film, Mike has noticed him even bouncing in unison with his twin.
“It was just so easy over the years with Bob because we had a built in partnership, that we know we’re never going to dump each other or give up on each other,” Mike said. “That’s what made it so comfortable over the years.”
Mike’s 17th Grand Slam doubles title ties him for the record, but he’d give it back if he could, just to be even with his brother. Mike tried to forfeit points once when Bob missed a Davis Cup due to the birth of one of his children. They wanted to be able to finish the year No. 1 together, but the tour did not allow the change.
When Mike and Bob played singles as kids, their parents strove to maintain a healthy environment. Mike and Bob would default to each other if they faced one another in a final at junior tournaments. Once when the boys were about 6, Bob used a broom handle to send a ball flying over a massive tree. It was probably luck, his dad said. But Wayne spent the next three days out in the yard with Mike until he successfully hit one like that, too.
“Every child dreams of being No. 1 in the world,” Wayne said. “It’s hard to be No. 1 in the world if you’re No. 2 in the bedroom.”
The brothers’ parents started them off in different elementary school classes, but Mike and Bob didn’t like that and moved into the same classes starting in second grade. Mike has heard stories about how as babies they would cry if in different rooms. At Stanford, students can’t choose their roommates, so Mike and Bob were on opposite sides of campus. Bob moved in on a mattress on Mike’s floor.
That “unbreakable twin bond,” Macpherson said, is the ultimate advantage in doubles. On the court, Mike said it feels more like they are one entity, rather than two players working together. Their games complement each other in more ways than the obvious lefty-righty pairing.
“He brought the big serve. I brought better returns,” Mike said. “He had a big power. I brought the finesse. It was a perfect match.”
Mike said the brothers had thought about ending their careers after this season, especially if they finished No. 1. That would have been the perfect finale, Mike said. But Bob’s injury changed those plans, and now Mike said the best scenario would be Bob recovering to play next season so they can both go out on their terms. If Bob can’t come back, Mike said he’ll have to sit down at the end of the year and consider what’s best.
“It’s tough to say no to winning Slams,” Mike said, “but I don’t want to overstay my welcome either.”
After Mike’s career wraps up, whether that’s with his brother or otherwise, he envisions himself living in the same city as Bob. He’s not exactly sure what he’ll pursue — maybe coaching, maybe starting a business. But Mike does feel confident about the basic framework of his future. It will be in tennis. And it will be with his brother.
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