The Bryans' toughest test yet

NEW YORK -- The throbbing pain in Radek Stepanek's neck had been mounting, and at the same time, the feeling in his right hand had been leaking away. By this past January, it was starting to frighten him.

After losing in the first round of the Australian Open doubles tournament with partner Leander Paes, Stepanek finally went to the doctor. The diagnosis did not surprise him.

"Surgery," Stepanek said Tuesday night, standing outside the men's locker room. "I had a dislocated disc in my neck, C7-8, the worst one to have."

He had the surgery and missed the next five months to recover. And then he came back in June on the grass at Eastbourne.

"Too quick," Stepanek said. "Yeah, we've had a rough year so far, but we turned it around at Wimbledon. We made the semifinals, and now again we are in semifinals, so it's exciting.

"We'd definitely like to make a step forward."

There are at least two guys still in the draw who would definitely not like to see that happen: Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan. The No. 1-seeded team meets Paes and Stepanek (No. 4) at noon on Thursday on the world's biggest tennis court, Arthur Ashe.

The 35-year-old identical twins from California find themselves on the cusp of history. They currently hold all four Grand Slam doubles trophies, but this US Open would give them a calendar Grand Slam that hasn't been achieved in men's doubles in 62 years.

"They're going for a big record," said 40-year-old Paes. "It should be a great match. It's hard to know how it will go because we haven't played them this year."

In fact, including this tournament, Paes-Stepanek have entered only eight events. Last year's head-to-head, however, is a valuable benchmark.

They played twice in January, with the Bryans winning in the Sydney quarterfinals and Paes and Stepanek taking the rematch in the Australian Open final. Paes and Stepanek won again in the Miami semifinals, but the Bryans took the next one, on clay in Monte Carlo. Paes and Stepanek finished strong, winning their last meeting in a super-tiebreaker, 6-4, 6-7 (6), 10-7, at the year-end championships in London.

"Let's see," Paes said, after he and Stepanek recited those results from memory, "that would make us 3-2. Yeah, we have a pretty good record against them."

Well, yes. Against the greatest doubles team in history -- the Bryans have collected a record 92 titles, 15 of them Grand Slams -- a better-than-.500 record is more than solid. Paes has had his trouble with the Bryans over the years, producing a record of 15-24 with nine different partners. He has a winning record with only two of them -- David Rikl (4-2) and Justin Gimelstob (1-0). His overall mark with Stepanek is 3-4.

"I'm very proud of the way Radek has come back this year after surgery," Paes said. "We stuck it out, like we always do. What makes us a great doubles team is we are great friends off the court and the unconditional love in our hearts. And that helps us."

Two days before the meeting was consummated, Paes talked fondly about the brothers Bryan. Even though he knew he might be playing them in the semifinals, he seemed to be rooting for them.

"They're in my half of the draw," Paes said. "So I'm going to go after them with every single thing I've got. Then they will have earned it. Because that's the beauty of what they do. They put in the time, they play hard and all of us are going to go out there and go at them very hard.

"Because if they, hopefully, do win -- and I wish them really the best of luck, it will be well deserved if they do."