Mike Bryan, the top-ranked player in men’s doubles, qualified for the year-end championships with two different partners, one recovering from surgery and one lacking in confidence. A choice had to be made.
So late last month Bob Bryan, Mike’s twin brother and his partner for the first half of the season (and most of their lives), contacted Jack Sock, Mike’s partner for much of the second half of the season.
Bob Bryan, sidelined since May with a hip injury, needed to know how serious Sock was in his talk of ending his 2018 season early after a series of disappointing singles results. Sock, who finished 2017 ranked in the top 10 in singles, was about to fall out of the top 100.
But while Sock was in that free-fall, he teamed up with Mike Bryan to win Wimbledon and the United States Open.
“I called up Jack and told him, ‘I’m not 100 percent, but I’ll go to London if you don’t want it,’” said Bob Bryan, who on Aug. 2 had hip resurfacing surgery and was still figuring out how to bend over to put on his socks without help.
As Sock decided whether to shut down for the year, Bryan flirted with the idea of getting on a plane from his home in Miami and playing tournaments in Vienna and Paris last month and then the ATP World Tour Finals in London this week.
“In fact, I was really fired up at the thought,” Bryan said. “But then Jack said, ‘I’m committed to going,’ and that was it.”
Bob and Mike have been playing together for more than 30 of their 40 years. When they were children, their parents, Kathy and Wayne, barred them from playing each other in tournament finals, insisting that they take turns defaulting, in order to preserve family harmony.
Doubles were another story. The twins’ union has produced 116 titles, including 16 majors and 38 ATP Masters 1000 championships. They also won Olympic gold in London in 2012 and helped the United States to a Davis Cup win in 2007. Together, they have won more than 1,000 professional matches.
But the brothers struggled in recent years, prompting much talk about their retirement. Back in 2013, they won 11 titles together and fell just short of a Grand Slam with a semifinal loss at the U.S. Open. The following year they claimed 10 titles, including their last major championship together, at the U.S. Open.
But by 2017, they had captured only two midlevel tournaments, and Bob was mumbling about wanting to get off the road and spend more time at Disney World with his wife and three children.
“I really think we had one foot out the door,” said Mike, the older twin by two minutes. “Our twin energy just wasn’t as strong as when we were No. 1 and we could both feel it on the court.”
Bob said the brothers had, in fact, planned to announce their retirement at the 2017 Australian Open.
“The way we were going wasn’t very good for a few years, and we weren’t having fun,” he said. “I actually had a statement written up, and we were going into the press room when Mike said, ‘Hold off until the U.S. Open.’ It was a really tough time for both of us.”
One of the big issues was Mike’s unhappiness in his five-year marriage to Lucille Williams. His personal life impeded his professional one, and by the summer of 2017 the brothers were barely speaking to each other.
“I was carrying a lot of baggage onto the court,” Mike admitted.
By last December, Mike had split from Williams, moving in temporarily with Bob and his wife, Michelle. He began seeing his current girlfriend, Nadia Murgasova. The spring returned to his step.
As Mike and Bob were preparing to play the Australian Open in January, they and their coaches, David Macpherson and Dave Marshall, sat down to craft goals for the year. Bob’s goals were emotional: having fun and enjoying being together on court. Mike’s were far loftier; he wanted to win two majors and end the season ranked No. 1 for the 11th time in their careers. Bob thought he was kidding. They also changed rackets and hired a fitness trainer.
By mid-spring the brothers were back on track. They had reached the semifinals of the Australian Open and were runners-up (to Sock and John Isner) at Indian Wells before winning Masters 1000 titles in Miami and Monte Carlo. They were heading back to the No. 1 ranking when Bob’s right hip began to give him trouble. He couldn’t walk 100 yards without having to sit down.
The brothers retired in the first set of the final in Madrid against Nikola Mektic and Alexander Peya. A win there would have returned them to No. 1.
After three months of futile attempts to rehab the hip, Bob opted for surgery. Mike played with six partners but found his greatest success with Sock.
When Mike and Sock won Wimbledon, Bob was happy for his brother, but he didn’t know what to think about the future. When they won the U.S. Open, Bob couldn’t bring himself to watch the match on TV, though he was the first person to call and congratulate the team, reaching Mike while they were still on court waiting for the start of the trophy presentation.
For now, Mike is playing with Sock in London, where they won their first round-robin match on Monday. Together, they are 17-5. But Mike and Bob insist that when 2019 rolls around, they will be competing together again.
“I’ve had a magical partnership with Jack, but his No. 1 focus has always been singles,” Mike said. “He knows he was just filling in until Bob comes back.”
Neither brother is certain how much longer they will play. Had Bob not gotten hurt and had they won two majors together and reached No. 1 in 2018, they considered “pulling a Pete Sampras,” and going out on top, Mike said. But then, of course, there are the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, another potential goal.
“If you set a deadline, you end up limping into a year,” Mike said. “I don’t want to put a final date on things as long as I still love waking up and going to practice.
“The only thing I know is that when we go out, we go out together,” he added. “We’re a package deal.”