Already the best, Bryans hitting peak

LONDON -- Two years ago, Mike Bryan called his identical twin brother, Bob, from a Crate & Barrel store in Los Angeles.

"I just bought a couch," Mike said.

"I was like, 'Shut up. I just bought one too,'" said Bob, who was 3,000 miles away -- in a Crate & Barrel in Miami.

"What kind did you get?" Mike asked.

"I got the brown sectional," Bob answered.

"You're s------- me," Mike said. "I got the exact same one."

Mike asked Bob what he paid, and it was the identical price.

"It was like a 'Twilight Zone' thing," said Mike.

AP Photo/David Vincent

The Bryan brothers have accomplished a lot, but a season Slam would probably take the cake.

"Yeah," Bob said, "you read those stories about the twins separated at birth and they buy their mother the same Mother's Day card."

That undeniable genetic bond -- and their sometimes supernatural synchronicity -- is why the Bryan brothers of Camarillo, Calif., are the world's best doubles team. Now and, perhaps, forever.

The brothers -- Mike is two minutes older -- turned 35 in April, but they are playing the best tennis of their lives. This would seem to defy the laws of human anatomy, but it is a fact.

At the All England Club, they find themselves on the cusp of some remarkable achievements, even for them.

After Saturday's second-round victory -- their 24th consecutive match win -- they are four from the Wimbledon title. That would give them an unprecedented Golden Slam, which includes last year's London Olympics gold medal and the title at the US Open along with this season's Australian Open and French Open championships.

It would also leave them with a chance for the single-season Grand Slam in September's US Open, something that hasn't occurred in the Open era.

Unless you are a keen fan of tennis, you might not have known this. Doubles labors in anonymity relative to singles. When the Bryans won their first-round match over the Brazilian team of Marcelo Demoliner and Andre Sa (losing only nine games), no one recorded the moment for posterity. Getty and AP Images have no photographs in their archives.

For the record, Bob and Mike are historically the best male team that ever played. They have won:

• The most career doubles titles, 90.

• The most Grand Slam doubles titles, 14.

• The most year-end No. 1 rankings, eight.

"Truthfully," said Wayne Bryan, their father and first coach, "I think they are playing better than ever."

He goes on to say that Mike, the weaker server of the two, is serving better, which makes a big difference. And that the two continue to tinker with their games, working on miniscule things too subtle for most other teams to grasp.

Then there is this, from Wayne, the most dedicated keeper of all things Bryan brothers: In their past three Grand Slam events, they won precisely the same percentage of the points in each tournament, 56.

With that razor-fine margin, they are dominating as no team has ever dominated.

Keeping it together

Before the Bryans, Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde were the world's best doubles team. The Australians won 61 titles and 11 Grand Slams together.

On Saturday, Woodforde was asked how it was possible the Bryans, in their 16th season, are posting the best results of their careers.

"Maybe," Woodforde said, pausing for a good 10 seconds and closing his eyes, "the competition is softer. I mean that in the kindest way -- not to take anything away from them.

"The majority of the good doubles teams have all disintegrated."

Before you pass this off as sour grapes -- the Bryans, after all, smashed the Woodies' records -- the man is right. Woodbridge and Woodforde retired after the 2000 season. The team of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes were dominant around that time, but they could not coexist off the court. Daniel Nestor and Mark Knowles parted ways in 2007, and Nenad Zimonjic has had a number of partners over the years.

Though those great teams slowly crumbled and disappeared, the Bryans stayed together and grew stronger. On Friday, they sat down with three American writers in the intimacy of Interview Room No. 3. They sat side by side and wore K-Swiss sweat suits, Bob in white and Mike in blue, sort of a yin-yang affair.

AP Photo/Mark Allan

The Olympic gold medal is the catalyst that propelled the Bryans to an amazing run in the past year.

"I think we're hitting our peak right now," Mike said. "We've never had these type of results. We're doing everything well. We're just closing down the holes."

And then, as often happens with the Bryans, he paused and Bob picked up the narrative.

"The doubles game takes a long time to mature," he said. "It's a really complex game. Movement, communication ... that's why you're seeing doubles players play their best tennis around 35. Nestor had his best year around this age.

"We're also figuring out what works for us, what works in the gym, practice court, what works at the restaurants, in terms of diet. We're just kind of fine-tuning it right now."

Doubles does not affect hips and knees, shoulders and wrists the way singles does. With the advent of the match tiebreaker, which essentially eliminates the third set, today's matches are shorter. At this point, the brothers say, it has become more of a mental enterprise.

"We're going to shut it down when we're mentally tired," Bob said. "Our bodies are in good shape. They should last us for a long time."

Wincing, he shot a look at Mike.

Without a word, they both knocked on the wooden table top, almost in unison.

Nature or nurture?

Although their DNA is undeniably the bedrock of their synergy, Wayne Bryan believes it is more a product of their close proximity over the years. Three years ago, ESPN.com asked him to calculate approximately how many hours they had been playing together.

This is what he came up with:

Age 1-4: Hitting at balloons, pushing balls around or doing little things with rackets in the backyard. Estimate: 15 minutes a day. (4 years x 300 days = 1,200 days x 15 minutes = 300 hours.)
Age 5: Playing in junior clinics an hour a day, four days a week. Maybe hit with mom or dad for 30 minutes, twice a week. Playing for fun around the club and maybe a small club event or two. (1 hour a day x 6 days a week = 300 hours.)
Age 6-8: Playing junior team tennis matches on Monday and playing in local 10-and-under tournaments. (Up to two hours a day, seven days a week, with occasional days off = 1,800 hours.)
Age 9-10: Three hours a day, most days = 3,600 hours.
Age 11-18: Three to four hours a day, more on weekends with the tournaments = 11,200 hours.
Two years at Stanford: Practice for two hours a day, off-court training for one hour. (Six days a week + matches + warm-up + tournaments all summer, three hours a day = 2,100 total.)
As professionals (1998-2010): Thirteen years at roughly two hours a day, with a day off most weeks and three weeks off each year. (300 days x 2 hours = 600 hours x 13 years = 8,749 hours.)
Total: 25,959 hours. Add in three more years, and it comes to more than 28,000 hours.

AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau

How is it possible the Bryan brothers are hitting their peak this late into their careers?

"It's such a small margin in doubles," Bob said. "There's a point where it doesn't come down to tennis."

That same-page solidarity was tested at the London Olympics. They played 11 sets at the All England Club, and seven of them came down to tiebreakers. The Bryans won six of them. They beat Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Michael Llodra in the final.

Winning the gold medal was the catalyst for this fabulous run. Including those Olympics, the Bryans have won 12 of their past 20 tournaments.

"Winning the gold medals was pretty cool," Bob said. "That high lasted for a few months. I remember being in Cincinnati and saying, 'We did it.' That was a month later.

"When people come over to the house, they just want to see the gold medal. They want to hold the gold medal. That kind of transcends the sport."

Added Mike, "We started playing happier. It just felt so good. You play great happy. It just translated to a great summer. Put a smile on our face -- on the court, in the locker room, all the way through Europe indoor season."

Embracing the moment

When the Bryans won the French Open, Woodforde was in the broadcast booth, doing the world feed with Wally Masur, another former Aussie doubles player.

"In tight moments, it's a mental battle," Woodforde said. "Mike and Bob, because they're so used to that tension, they thrive on it. In the end, one team embraced the tension and the other team didn't.

"Guess what wins?"

Woodforde smiled and continued.

"I know full well in those moments you feel like you can hit the shots that need to be hit. And they hit those shots. That's why they're the best ever and why they're looking at doing something that's never been done."

What's the scouting report on the Bryans?

"How do you beat us?" Mike asked.

"No," Bob said. "I don't want to go there.

"I like to think that we're always applying pressure. And, hopefully, that one break will be good enough. We always rely on our serves. We're tough to break on grass, but it can be frustrating."

The Bryans have won two Wimbledon titles, in 2006 and 2011, but they will tell you they have lost a few times when their serves were not broken.

"Grass is a little bit of an equalizer," Bob said. "A caveman can come out and serve bombs and hold serve the whole way."

In recent years, their lives have grown more complicated. Both brothers are married, and Bob has a daughter, Micaela, 1, who keeps the dynamic lively -- and has a clever Twitter (@MicaelaBryan) feed.

"It is fun for them," Wayne said. "Where there is fun, there is no burnout."

Wayne doesn't think his sons have ever made completing a single-season Grand Slam a goal because "it's too dadgum hard to do. Impossible, really."

What would achieving the Grand Slam mean to them?

"It would mean a lot," said Bob, "but that's just something that goes with a Wimbledon title, and that's what we're playing for. We've been lucky to set a lot of amazing type records ..."

"... that we've achieved the last few years," said Mike, finishing the sentence. "This is another one of those times where we have a chance to do something special, and we're just trying to win the Wimbledon title.

"It's just this time there are a lot of things that go with it that would be awesome."

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