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Two for the show

8/21/2013

IF YOU PAY close attention, you can hear a coughing sound interrupting the endless stream of lament regarding the state of U.S. men's tennis. It's coming from the back of the room from twins Bob and Mike Bryan, the doubles machine that never quite finds itself in the conversation of everything that's right with the American game, even though only Patton and MacArthur were more decorated than these two.

True, the nadir of American men's tennis is nigh. True, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras aren't walking through that door any time soon, except to play legends exhibitions. For the first time since the inception of the ATP rankings in 1973, no Americans are to be found in the singles Top 20, and no one -- not John Isner, not Ryan Harrison, not Sam Querrey -- is quite good enough to tussle consistently on the big stage for the big hardware with Messrs. Djokovic, Nadal and Murray. The future of men's tennis in this country is a pubescent group of seventh-graders at malls across America, stepping out of their minivans, about to go back-to-school shopping with Mom.

The present of doubles, however, is the Bryans, otherwise known as the greatest men's doubles team in the history of the game. They are better than Woodbridge and Woodforde, better than McEnroe and Fleming. If Venus and Serena Williams are the greatest pair of siblings that American athletics has ever produced, the Bryan brothers are second, with apologies to the Mannings.

Bob and Mike are tennis gifts from the gods, monozygotic miracles born 35 years ago to physical advantage and talented and dedicated enough to transform advantage into legend. Bob is 6'4", Mike an inch shorter. Bob is lefthanded, making them the rarest of genetic miracles, the mirror twins, perfect for doubles. They've won each of the four majors at least twice and have 15 slam titles total, two more than the Williams sisters. And unlike the Williams sisters, the Bryans enter the U.S. Open just a championship away from winning the calendar grand slam. That hasn't been done on the men's side since 1951, since before Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard 'round the world. The brothers already hold all four majors after having won last year's U.S. Open, and they carry the Olympic gold medal on top of that. So winning the Open would give them what no male player has ever had: the calendar grand slam plus the most recent gold medal. (In 1988 Steffi Graf became the only female to pull off that feat.)

The resume is one thing, but watching them is another. Lamenting where John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors have gone is a mistake without enjoying these two play the game. They turn doubles into extreme pinball, with hand-eye coordination so dizzying that all it can do for spectators is produce wonder and smiles and ultimately applause because it just isn't possible to be that quick. Even among the elite in tennis, the Bryans are different, affecting doubles with aggression, one positioned almost on top of the other, convinced they are quicker, sharper and better than anyone across the net. They're so good they are simultaneously taken for granted and oddly nitpicked because their success is not in singles but in the less viewed doubles and because their top potential challengers -- such as Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor -- aren't together. These criticisms are weak. The scoreboard never lies.

There was a time not so terribly long ago when doubles was broadcast prominently on TV and was also taken seriously by the best singles players (McEnroe and Martina Navratilova, for example). Those days are long gone. Tennis is about the grand slams, and few name players would jeopardize winning a singles title for doubles glory. The price has been less visibility for the staggering achievements of the Bryans.

But hopefully this year's U.S. Open will change that. They need one last title for history, and it is sitting for the taking at Flushing Meadows. For all the consternation about American tennis, two brothers have been rewriting the doubles record books and may do so again.

For one fortnight, finding the next McEnroe can wait.

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