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Bryans responsible for rebirth of doubles

8/2/2010

When Mike and Bob Bryan, identical twins (so identical that they were born within two minutes of each other and even share the common middle initial "C"), first declared that they intended to become doubles specialists, their decision elicited little more than a collective groan.

Then, more than 10 years ago, the world needed that dreaded species, the "doubles specialist" like it needed a hole in the head. Those were dark days for the game of doubles. Many pundits thought specialists were pariahs who found a way to finance a laid-back, happy-go-lucky way of life thanks to a combination of history (doubles has always been staple of tournament tennis) and the pro tour's need for "filler" -- stuff to present on the last few days of a tournament, especially if something goes awry in singles.

Well, on Sunday the Bryans became the most successful team in doubles history, recording their 62nd title (including eight majors) in a remarkable 100th final (the Farmers Classic, in Los Angeles, was the lucky host). And though there's room for debate on where the Bryans rank with the great doubles teams -- who were at a considerable handicap because they consisted of players competing in both doubles and singles (those squads include the team whose record the Bryans shattered, Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, as well John McEnroe and Peter Fleming, and old-school squads like John Newcombe and Tony Roche) -- there's no disputing what the Bryans did for the game of doubles, period.

The early 2000s were pretty grim years for doubles. With tennis in the United States sputtering (the U.S. was the original engine that drove the world tennis boom) and tournament directors worldwide becoming increasingly weary of allocating a significant percentage of their budgets to undistinguished but resource-sucking doubles squads, both tournament and tour officials began to question the value of doubles. Enter Bob and Mike Bryan, who essentially declared, "Doubles is what we are, and what we will work at and try to promote in our every waking moment."

Of course, specialists have argued for ages that fans love doubles, and of that there's no doubt. But it's also true that attempts to promote doubles as a standalone attraction were unsuccessful. Fans, it seems, enjoyed doubles, but not as the main attraction. The Bryans approached doubles as if it really mattered, and they penetrated the tennis public's consciousness.

When Etienne de Villiers took over as CEO of the ATP Tour in 2005, with a mandate to increase the prize money for singles and find ways to make the game more marketable in general, the future of doubles suddenly appeared to be in jeopardy. Concepts like round-robin singles competition at run-of-the-mill tour events, and a drastically reduced doubles draw, gained steam.

By then, though, the Bryans were attracting attention and were hard at work building a legacy. Bob and Mike (with a huge assist from their father, tennis and doubles evangelist Wayne Bryan) led the charge to halt the destruction of doubles as we've always known it. They ultimately prevailed, in no small part because they had already elevated the game of doubles to a higher plane. Their dedication and passion were eloquent arguments against trashing one of the traditional features of every tennis tournament -- a doubles draw.

The Bryans almost single-handedly forced the tour to back down and re-conceive doubles instead of relegating it to the dust bin of history. That's the most significant aspect of their legacy, no matter how many titles they end up winning.