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Doubles tennis champions, identical twins Bob and Mike Bryan ride passion, friendship to top

WESLEY CHAPEL

They have played before countless crowds around the world, won each of tennis' crown jewel events for a career Grand Slam and are the first men's doubles team to rank No. 1 four times in a five-year span. But two months ago, 30-year-old identical twins Bob and Mike Bryan found themselves on a different kind of stage — and feeling more than a little nervous before the 25,000 spectators hanging on their every move. Of course, these moves had nothing to do with hitting winners on the hardcourts of the U.S. and Australian opens, the grass of Wimbledon or the clay of Roland Garros. They involved Bob serving up a keyboard solo and Mike taking a swing at acoustic rhythm guitar with a little solo of his own, while sitting in with the Counting Crows at the Ford Amphitheater in Tampa. "That was a dream come true," said Bob, sitting with Mike in the weight room at the Saddlebrook Resort, where they live and train part of each year. "It's something we've really dreamed about for a long time, playing on stage with an incredible band like that."

The Bryan brothers have been big fans of the band since the 1990s. They met Counting Crows drummer Jim Bogios last summer at Wimbledon and helped him get tickets to the men's singles final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

"I hit on the grass with him at the All England Club, and he wanted to repay us," Mike said.

They helped Bogios with tickets again at the U.S. Open, where they won the title a second time in September, and the drummer mentioned that they should plan to sit in with the band for a song on tour. Just in case, Bob learned the song Bogios suggested, Hanging Around, but as time passed, they forgot about it.

"I thought he was just throwing it out to be nice," Mike said. "But we were flying in to Tampa the night of their concert, and I get a text when we land that says, 'You guys are sitting in tonight. You're not getting out of it.' And I started getting nervous, thinking no way is this happening."

But their rock concert debut went off without a hitch — one more harmonic moment for a chart-topping tennis twosome doing a lot more these days than hanging around.

Doubles is traditionally overshadowed by the glitzier singles game and marquee names that put fans in the stands. But since establishing their dominance in 2003, the Bryans have done their part to enhance the profile of the pursuit — and they've given the United States a firm grip on doubles play in the process.

That was more evident than ever in December 2007 in Portland, Ore., at the 32nd annual Davis Cup. Bob, a left-hander who is 6-4, 200 pounds, and Mike, a right-hander who is 6-3, 192 pounds, employed their aggressive, attacking style to sweep Russia's Nikolay Davydenko and Igor Andreev.

Their 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 triumph clinched America's first Davis Cup crown in 12 years. It was their 13th doubles victory in 14 Davis Cup appearances, and the crowd of 13,000, along with a national television audience, saw the exuberant brothers complete the momentous win with their trademark chest bump.

"That was the peak of our career," Bob said. "It was a five-year process with ups and downs, being together with the same team (including Andy Roddick and Tampa's James Blake) the whole way through — and winning it in the U.S. was amazing."

"We'd dreamed of playing in Davis Cup since we were 10 years old," Mike added, "and every match we played felt like a Grand Slam final."

They know something about that. From 2005 to 2006, the Bryans competed in seven straight Grand Slam finals, an Open Era record. They've earned 49 ATP victories and an Olympic bronze. And though they slipped to No. 2 in the world in their final match of 2008, with Bob bothered by a lingering shoulder injury, they're looking for a return to the top when the 2009 campaign begins Jan. 19 at the Australian Open.

"We just want to get better every day, because every year the game gets better," Bob said. "We want to stay healthy and do this as long as possible, because it's a great gig."

• • •

There was little doubt that tennis would take hold with the twins, born prematurely at 4 pounds, 2 ounces in Camarillo, Calif. — Mike older by two minutes but Bob having the edge in length by 3 centimeters.

Their father, Wayne, a lawyer and performing musician, was the manager and pro at a local tennis club; their mother, Kathy, competed at Wimbledon four times, reached the mixed doubles quarterfinals in 1965 and taught at the same club as her husband.

The parents never pushed the boys to play. Instead, Wayne took them to college and pro tournaments to watch top players compete, and their passion for the sport evolved naturally.

"We developed idols, and we couldn't wait to play," Bob said.

When it came to lessons, the boys learned in a group rather than receive individual instruction. "We were always just running around with rackets in our hands, and my dad really made it fun for us," Mike said. "We had big group clinics every day, and we'd play games and never knew that we were working so hard. We played four hours a day since age 6. And being twins, we would just push each other."

As their skills developed, they would write down their goals and place them on the refrigerator, starting with winning trophies to qualifying for tournaments on the road to earning a college scholarship at Stanford.

Wayne and Kathy did have a few key rules for their children: doing well in school was a must; and reading took priority over television (in fact, they had no TV in the house). The boys would play tennis for four hours a day, eat dinner, then do homework for several more hours. "We were perfectionists; we never wanted to get B's in school, so we'd help each other out," Mike said.

One other rule: Bob and Mike were not allowed to play each other in the youth and junior tournaments. They took turns defaulting if they were to face each other, including about 30-40 times in the finals.

"As a result, we never really became competitive against each other on the court," Bob said. "We were supportive and became good friends and doubles partners. It would really have affected our psyches if one was dominating the other one. You never want to lose to your twin brother."

• • •

Bob became a standout junior and collegiate singles player, ranked No. 1 nationally, with Mike just a notch behind him. But there was never a doubt they would play doubles as pros.

"Getting to experience this with your twin brother is really special," Mike said. "We have our disagreements, but we're never jealous. It's always sharing — that's the bond we have."

They also have their own music act, the Bryan Brothers Band, with a full recording studio in their California home. They have to approve of each other's girlfriends. And they divide investments and prize money (more than $5-million over 10 years) equally.

But the Bryans discount any notion that being identical twins gives them some intuitive edge. Instead, they point to the thousands of hours they have worked and played together.

Says Hall of Famer Tony Trabert: "They're tall guys, and being a righty and lefty can be effective. But the other thing is that they're such good friends and they play so much together, they know what the other is going to do, or not do. That's very important."

Wayne has written a book on the parenting approach he and Kathy took titled Raising Your Child to be a Champion in Athletics, Arts and Academics. They couldn't be prouder of their sons.

"It's not what they've accomplished in tennis," he said. "I'm happy they've achieved all their goals, because they have. But what we're most proud of is the kind of people Mike and Bob are and how they treat other people. That's what counts most."

Whether counting wins, counting blessings or Counting Crows.

Dave Scheiber can be reached at scheiber@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8541.

Fast facts

Career highlights

Web site: www.bobandmike.com

Career doubles record: 522-190

Titles: 49 (fourth most in the Open Era, behind Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde with 61, Peter Fleming and John McEnroe with 57 and Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan with 57)

Hot streak: The Bryans are the first men's doubles team to rank No. 1 four times in five years (2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007) and were ranked No. 1 in 2008 until a loss in their final match of the season. Woodbridge and Woodforde also finished No. 1 four times (1992, 1995, 1996, 1997) in six years.

Lefty-righty file: The top two 2008 men's doubles teams pair a left-hander (Daniel Nestor/Bob Bryan) and a right-hander while the other three are right-handers. About 20 percent of all identical twins have one right-hander and one left-hander. Nestor (with Mark Knowles in '02, '04 and Nenad Zimonjic in '08) or the Bryans have been No. 1 since 2002.

Doubles tennis champions, identical twins Bob and Mike Bryan ride passion, friendship to top 12/22/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 23, 2008 3:22pm]

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