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Steve Flink: 40 and Loving It: Inside the Bryan Brothers' Late-Career Resurgence

Over the course of their careers, the redoubtable Bryan brothers have touched so many milestones that it has become difficult to keep track of their achievements. The immensely popular American twins have done it all in doubles over an extraordinarily long span, setting records almost routinely along the way, building a loyal and enduring following fan base, demonstrating that nothing matters more than winning without excess ego. For a couple of decades now, Mike and Bob Bryan have gone to work honorably in their favorite playgrounds, and their pride and perspicacity have been on display wherever and whenever they have set foot on the field of competition.

The Bryans turned 40 on April 29, yet this pair of tennis icons is not resting on their laurels. They are tied for fifth in the ATP doubles rankings (No. 2 in the team rankings), but on current form, after winning Masters 1000 tournaments in Miami and Monte Carlo, they are looking more like the dominant tandem they once were. The Bryans, of course, have set every men’s doubles record imaginable, capturing 16 major titles, amassing 116 career title, residing at No. 1 in the world in the year-end rankings for no fewer than ten seasons, winning at least one Grand Slam title in ten consecutive years (2005-2014), reaching at least one major final in 15 consecutive seasons (2003-2017), and winning 24 Davis Cup matches for the United States.

"It doesn’t get normal to hear yourself called the greatest team of all time in the player intros on the court before matches," says Bob, the left-handed, deuce-court player. "Sometimes it is a little embarrassing, but it does make you proud."

Those achievements are just the tip of the iceberg. But the Bryans are not lost in their reflections. They are still chasing large dreams.

“When I turned pro [in 1998] I just said, ‘Hey, I would love to make it to 30 years old. That was my goal,” says Bob. “Then you get closer and we saw that we would be 34 when the London Olympics was played, so maybe that would be a great place to go out. Then you hit that [target] and there is no end in sight.”

Added the right-handed, ad-court stalwart Mike: “To play until 35 was just unheard of ten to 15 years ago. I think Mark Woodforde did it and we thought he was ancient. We were kind of envisioning when we were in our early 20s making it a little past 30, but here we are at 40 after 20 years playing and we still want to play more.”

UNPRECEDENTED SUCCESS, AND STRUGGLE

To be sure, the Bryans hit some roadblocks in recent years. During the latter stages of their 30s, they were hindered by injuries and, perhaps, by the passage of time. Meanwhile, Mike was going through a divorce, and the pain of that breakup brought about an inevitable diminishment in his lofty standards. The relationship of a customarily exuberant team was adversely affected.

“We were always so, so tight,” says Mike of the brotherly bond. “And then our lives off the court went different ways. We weren’t hanging out the way we had almost every second of every single day. I got divorced in January after four-and-a-half years of marriage and now we are spending more time together.

“The bond between twins is unbreakable. Now we feel like we are one unit again. To play great tennis you have to be secure and happy in your personal life. I wasn’t totally happy and it was definitely reflecting in my play. You have to keep everything clear upstairs to execute. I was taking big break points but my mind wasn’t there. I wasn’t clutch during that period.”

Bob believed that in the summer of 2017, he and his brother were squandering opportunities. But he also didn’t know that anything was going on, off the court, with his brother.

“When he got married five years ago I was fully on board,” says Bob. “At some point we stopped communicating about anything off the court. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I saw stuff breaking down on the court and in practices, and tempers flaring. It was a little bit of a different Mike Bryan than I was used to.”

They sat down and talked after an exhibition following the US Open. Thereafter, they kept the door of discussion wide open and the ongoing dialogue set the stage for marked improvement this season.

“I would say now that the chemistry between us and the level of our play has gone up a lot,” says Bob. “I am not blaming anything on him. We win and go down as a team, but Mike is definitely a new man on the court. After five years of not talking about personal stuff, we are doing that. Now there is more optimism on the court for both of us.”

The twins are in clear accord on that point. Interestingly, though, it was Mike who came into 2018 with possibly a larger sense of what they could accomplish this season. Before the year commenced, they wrote down their goals.

“I looked at Mike’s goals,” says Bob, “and thought, ‘Wow! This is like what we would write down when we were at our peak. It was inspiring. I was like, ‘Geez, he actually thinks we could go out there, win them all and finish the year No. 1. I was over chasing the titles. I was like, ‘Let’s go out there and enjoy it again.’ But he wrote down some concrete numbers and trophies. That was awesome.”

“We really want to have that feeling of lifting a big trophy again,” explains Mike. “We feel like we could have done a lot better the last few years. It was kind of a lackluster 24 months. We didn’t play up to our potential. Maybe it was a lack of motivation and our relationship was suffering. But I think we have everything in place to succeed again.

“We feel this is kind of the final chapter for us and we are trying to write the best story here at the end of our careers.”

EMBRACING CHANGE

One of the chief reasons for the Bryans’ resurgence at 40 is their unbending professionalism. They are working with two coaches, David Macpherson—who scouts the Bryans’ opponents—and Dave Marshall, who travels with the team.

Meanwhile, the twins have a trainer that they believe has been a pillar by their sides.

“His name is Indrek Tustit,” Mike says. “He is a specialist who really knows our bodies well. He can do massage, he is a chiropractor, he can do dry needles. He can do it all. He is the best guy that we have worked with.

“Indrek comes out every week with us on more or less a full time basis after going with us off and on for the last two years. We have struggled with injuries the last few years so we are taking our bodies a lot more seriously.”

The Bryans are also trying to be attentive across the board, going into the gym for an hour before practice, doing whatever they can to maintain their fitness. They are also examining their opponents in a manner they never did before.

“We have been watching a lot of footage of our opponents on Tennis TV,” says Mike. “That is something we had never done before. Bob and I have never really watched matches, but now we are sitting down at night and watching tapes. We break down our opponents’ plays and tendencies. This has really helped us. It kind of pushes the percentages in your favor.”

Preparation is one thing, but execution is another. This year the Bryans have switched to new racquets that have been highly beneficial.

“We went to a newer, high-powered Babolat racquet to adjust to changing technology,” explains Mike. “For the past ten years we had been using the same racquet which had limited power and a lot of control, but we weren’t gunning serves like most guys are doing these days. So we changed to the Babolat before the Australian Open this year. It was huge. Our aces and winning percentage on first serves have gone up. Our coaches wanted us to bring the heat more.”

And yet, Bob believes there are other advantages to the new racquet.

“We have a lot more aches and pains these days,” he says. “We were behind the curve with our old racquet, but the new technology has taken a lot of the strain off some of the joints in our arms. We are going out there now with a weapon which can do some damage. That is cool.”

When the ATP World Tour moved to an abbreviated format for doubles starting in 2006—implementing no-ad scoring and match tie-breaks in place of final sets—the Bryans were not thrilled. They were No. 1 in the world at the time and would have preferred to stick with traditional scoring. But as the years have passed, they have adjusted.

“The match tie-breakers have added longevity to everyone’s careers,” says Mike today. “The matches are definitely over sooner. Obviously it has been more stressful. You can lose a match where you definitely think you’re the better team, and walk off the court wondering what happened. But it has taken away some wear and tear on our bodies. Now the average match is about an hour for us. We are about 50-50 in our careers in match tie-breaks but this year we are 10-1.”

In spite of those benefits, Bob feels a more traditional format is the way to go.

“We don’t recover as fast these days, so less time on the court is probably better. But if I had my choice, we would play two out of three sets with no-ad.

“The other option would be two sets with regular scoring, and then a Match Tiebreaker. The Player Council has talked about these things.”

PAST, PRESENT—AND FUTURE

In my conversation with both brothers, I wondered about an imaginary match they would play against themselves. Times have changed and so have the Bryans. How would the Bryans of 2018 fare against the Bryans of 2005, 2007 or 2010?

“I would say we are playing just as good if not better now," says Mike. "We are better players. Bob is a better returner now and he doesn’t have that liability on the backhand. I feel I am a better server. We have improved game-wise. I feel like I am hitting the ball better now than I ever have. It is just that maybe we had more spring in our step before, and Bob was probably serving in the 140 (m.p.h.)’s ten years ago, while maybe now he is in the high 120’s. That is the thing: the liveliness in our bodies. But tactically we are better than we were ten years ago.”

As for Bob, he responded jovially: “We would definitely give those young punks a run for their money. I wouldn’t want to give that lefty a short overhead because he would probably take my face off. We were cocky punks. I think we have a lot more perspective now. We were bloodthirsty for the wins and the trophies and the rankings, consumed by it. We would lose a match and walk around like zombies for three days thinking about every point. Now I can let a loss go pretty quick. We are now taking all of the strategy and experience and using that to our advantage. We are shifting the margins in our favor more than we used to.”

Neither Bob nor Mike can afford to reflect too much on their pasts as they move through the present toward more historical landmarks. But which of their accomplishments they value the most?

“For me, finishing No. 1 for ten years was a big moment," says Mike unhesitatingly. "I exhaled. That was a big, round number. I was thrilled. Maybe it kind of bit me in the ass a bit because I might have stopped working as hard. It has now been three years since we hit ten years at No. 1. But now I am as fired up as I ever was.”

“If you look at the times we have represented our country, those are the ones we remember the most," says Bob. "The Olympics and Davis Cup are the proudest moments we have felt playing the sport, but those No. 1 trophies mean a lot, too, because they encapsulate a whole year’s worth of your body of work.”

So where do the Bryans go from here? Can they remain among the elite until they are 45?

“I am not looking that far," says Mike, "but I can see the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. That is kind of in the back of my mind. That would be when we are 42 years old, so besides Daniel Nestor and Leander Paes that would be unheard of to make an Olympics at that age. Who knows? I know Venus Williams wants to go for it, so why not?”

“We are taking it one week at a time," adds Bob. "We would love to get through the year healthy and play a full schedule. I am really grateful for every time we go out there and compete. I am not putting a ceiling on anything as long as we are having fun out there.”

Read more articles by Steve Flink


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