Bob and Mike Bryan had a really good plan. One last whirl around the world for this unmatched identical twin doubles team. Collect some prize money, doff their caps in Melbourne and Paris and at Wimbledon, then end in one big blanket of tennis love at the U.S. Open in New York, where they have won their home-country slam five times.
So that’s not going to happen, not this year anyway.
The Bryan brothers must confront the same decision facing any number of professional athletes of a certain age. They targeted 2020 as their swan song, a year they might, with a little luck, author the sort of storybook ending every athlete yearns for but only very few — Pete Sampras, Peyton Manning, David Ross — actually get. At the very least, they would be able to say goodbye.
Now the Bryan brothers need to figure out whether they want to, or even can, put the band back together for a second attempt at a farewell tour in 2021. In fact, they don’t even know if they want to bother playing the U.S. Open in September if it happens. Live in a quasi-bubble at an airport hotel in Queens? Play in an empty stadium without any whooping and hollering for their signature, service-line chest bumps? What’s the point?
“I don’t think we want to play a sterile U.S. Open with no fans,” Mike Bryan said during a recent video chat from his home near Los Angeles.
Bob was in a neighboring box on the screen from his home in Florida, lamenting with Mike the idea of playing their final match under conditions that would probably feel more like a practice session, even if another Grand Slam title was on the line. “That’s not what we signed up for,” Bob said.
They have signed up for World Team Tennis, the coed competition that pits teams of players against each other in a series of short matches. Usually the nine-team league plays its annual summer season in various cities throughout the country. This year, it’s all happening at The Greenbrier, a West Virginia resort that has created a restricted, supposedly clean environment where the players will live and compete and up to 500 fans will be allowed.
With coronavirus infection rates rising and professional athletes in other sports testing positive, no one knows whether the tennis league will ultimately be able to pull off its season, though it has the luxury of being a brief, isolated sprint, compared with the three-month traveling circus that baseball is planning.
For the Bryan brothers, World Team Tennis represents an experiment of sorts. They turned 42 in April, long past the sell-by date for most professional tennis players, even those who have to cover only half the court. Bob had a right hip procedure two years ago. World Team Tennis will require them to play more than a dozen matches in 20 days, which will give them a decent idea of whether their bodies might be able to handle the rigors of the pro tour for another 14 months.
The first part of this year showed some promise. They lost in the third round of the Australian Open, then won a tournament in Delray Beach, Fla. It was the their 119th title together. Then they won their doubles match in a Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan in Honolulu.
They headed to Indian Wells, Calif., for what is informally known as the fifth Grand Slam, to have a last go-round at one of their favorite tournaments. That’s where tennis came to a screeching halt. The rest of the sports world followed suit days later.
“We’d won five matches and were feeling very positive,” Bob said.
And then, for a long while, they had no idea how they felt. Their main playing partner became the Slinger Bag, a portable ball machine made by a company the brothers signed on with as endorsers last year. Mike set his up in his backyard in California and practiced his volleys. Bob dragged his to a court near where he lives in Florida and made do.
From a tennis perspective, they longed for the years when they were living under the same roof, and finding a hitting partner required nothing more than knocking on the bedroom door down the hall. They are what is known as “mirror twins,” which is a subset of identical twins.
Facing each other, they appear as reflections. Mike, for example, is right-handed, while Bob is a lefty, making them ideal teammates and practice partners. But life happens. Bob got married and moved to Florida in 2010. He has three children, who were supposed to be coming along on the farewell tour.
Now, as professional sports tries to resuscitate itself, the Bryan brothers will try to figure out if they can restart their careers after the layoff, and if stretching into next year would be worth the bother.
“We still love the game,” Bob said. But love is never enough. They need their health.
The hard-core tennis fans who pay attention to doubles — and they are the hardest of the hard-core — will know fairly quickly if the Bryan brothers think they have it.
If they show up at the U.S. Open, it won’t be for a farewell or for the money. They have won 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together. Mike won two more playing with Jack Sock. The Bryan brothers are the rare doubles specialists who became popular enough to garner lucrative endorsement deals.
They have enough money, but what they will need if they want to try to say goodbye to packed stadiums next year is a solid fall of earning rankings points, so they can obtain high seeds and have the best chance to play deep into tournaments. The way the system is set up now, they can only maximize their points if they play and do well at the U.S. Open, and then the French Open, and several other tournaments that are on the schedule for the fall.
If, that is, they can.
“This all depends on how our bodies hold up,” Mike said. “At 42, it’s all about the recovery.”