MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — At 40, Bob Bryan can dive for volleys again. He can turn, twist and slap fast-twitch returns. He can also win more titles: He partnered with his twin brother, Mike, and triumphed at the Delray Beach Open and the Miami Open in the last six weeks.
It is all beginning to feel so familiar that Bob Bryan, one of the greatest doubles players in history, often forgets that he now has a mostly metal right hip.
“When I take the towel off, and I walk by a mirror, I go: ‘Whoa! Look at that scar!’” he said. “I have a 10-inch scar, and without that scar, I wouldn’t even know it’s in there.”
Tennis has long produced first-rate comeback tales. It has been 30 years since Thomas Muster, the intense Austrian, whacked groundstrokes in a custom-designed chair designed to protect his postoperative left knee, which was injured when a drunken driver plowed into Muster’s parked vehicle at the tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla.
Muster returned to the tour and reached No. 1.
Bryan’s renaissance at an age when most tennis stars have long since retired is certainly one for the short list, too.
It has been less than a year since he was hobbling down the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, Calif., with his wife, Michelle, certain that his remarkable career was over. He was concerned, above all, about getting healthy enough to play with his three young children.
“I couldn’t walk for more than five minutes,” he said.
The orthopedic surgeon Edwin Su resurfaced Bryan’s hip on Aug. 2 at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and explained that, if all went very well, Bryan could envision returning to tournament play eight months later.
He returned to action in five months and, now at the eight-month mark, is winning significant tournaments.
“What Bob is doing is incredible,” Su said in a telephone interview on Monday. “He really is demonstrating what determination and his hard work can accomplish with a new implant.”
“Incredible” is quite a word choice from a surgeon who has performed more than 4,000 such procedures. A few others were on professional athletes trying to save their careers, including the former major league pitcher Colby Lewis.
But no professional tennis player has had this procedure and returned to the fore, although Andy Murray, who underwent the same type of operation in January in London after plenty of chatting and texting with Bryan, may try to do the same.
“The things that make Bob Bryan great, you don’t know if you are going to lose that with an artificial joint and surgery,” Su said. “It’s amazing to see he doesn’t seem to have lost any of it and in fact is now able to play without pain.”
David Macpherson, the Bryans’ longtime coach, said Bob was playing like the “30-year-old Bob.”
“He’s exploding to poaches like the old days when he would just steal points from incredible cross-court returns by flashing across the net with the speed of light and picking off balls,” Macpherson said in Miami. “I also feel he’s a little more confident on the return, letting it go and doing more damage than before, and he is still serving just as nasty. So I really feel he’s in a great place right now, where he’s just enjoying his life and loves his family but is getting a second lease on tennis.”
After Bob’s hip problem became acute in Madrid last May, Mike went on to win Wimbledon and the United States Open with Jack Sock. Bob attended their practices in New York while using a cane. But there was no doubt the twins would reunite on court if Bob could recover.
“With all the success Mike was having with Jack in the majors, Bob just handled it all with so much class and was so supportive of Mike in that time,” MacPherson said.
Doubles has been deeply overshadowed in the modern era, with the biggest stars like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal focusing on singles in Grand Slam tournaments. But in a parched environment, the Bryans — Mike the right-hander, and Bob the lefty — have managed to carve out a rich niche with their winning ways and personalities.
They have enthusiastically gone above and beyond to sign just about every autograph and pose for just about every selfie, but Bob is reaching a new audience now.
“I talk to probably three or four people a week, people who get my number and call me about hip problems,” he said. “A professional soccer player in Australia. I’m getting hit up by people all the time.”
He said he had spoken with Murray, the former world No. 1 from Britain, most recently about a week ago.
“He was asking me a lot of questions in the early weeks, because obviously those are the weeks where you are not feeling great and probably a little concerned,” Bryan said. “But I think he’s probably feeling really good right now.”
Murray has posted video of himself on social media lightly hitting tennis balls. But returning in singles, with full-court coverage required, is a more daunting prospect.
“I think a three-out-of-five-set singles match is almost close to 50 times more physical than doubles,” Bryan said. “It’s going to really challenge Andy, the movement. But I can jump. I can lunge, and I am not sore after matches.”
As Murray debated whether to have surgery, Bryan put him in touch with Su, who said Murray was an ideal candidate for the procedure. Murray ultimately chose to have it done closer to home by Sarah Muirhead-Allwood, a leading British hip surgeon..
Can he come back and play singles at the highest level?
“I think he would be able to,” Su said.
Hip resurfacing is not a total hip replacement. It calls for shaving a thin layer of damaged bone off the ball of the hip joint and replacing it with a metal cap — “like crowning a tooth,” Su said.
A metal socket is also put in place. “When Bob refers to it as his metal hip, it is truly metal,” Su said.
Bryan credited Su, an avid tennis player, for his success so far.
“People tell me this surgery comes down to millimeters,” Bryan said. “I’ve talked to people who had different doctors and have done the same procedure, and they feel like crap.”
Su said he believed Bryan’s recovery had been accelerated in part by the use of a relatively new rehabilitation tool: an anti-gravity treadmill, which supports a player at the hips with an inflatable lower-body compartment and reduces the risks of fractures in the recovery phase.
“You can un-weight the body to 60 percent to 70 or 80,” Su said.
Su saw Bryan compete in the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., last month.
“I love it, just to see what he’s able to do,” Su said. “I cringe a little bit when he dives, but he’s done it several times, and no worse for the wear.”
Will such acrobatics and the other rigors of professional tennis put Bryan at greater risk of requiring follow-up surgery down the road?
“That’s a really good question we don’t have the answer to,” Su said. “We don’t have enough data in terms of how it would hold up to activity such as this. This has been done now for almost two decades, so there are some very active patients out there, and activity doesn’t seem to make it wear out. We’re drawing from the experiences of recreational athletes.”
The Miami title was the Bryans’ 118th together on tour. They had once planned on retiring after the 2012 Olympics and were close to retirement at the 2017 Australian Open. But such plans are on hold, even with their 41st birthday looming on April 29.
“Now we’re looking at Tokyo in 2020,” Bob said of the next Olympics, while emphasizing that “we never wanted to play until we were 45 or 46.”
Skepticism is definitely permitted at this stage.
“I know,” Bob said with a chuckle. “My wife doesn’t believe me, either.”