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“Leander was doing it when we were in diapers” – tennis

Bob and Mike—popularly known as the Bryan brothers on the professional tennis tour and regarded as the greatest doubles pair in the sport—were for a change watching the US Open on television, having announced their retirement days prior to the tournament.

In their post-retirement life, the identical twins with a record 16 Grand Slam titles as a pair are gearing up for their chat show debut with Indian doubles pro Purav Raja this weekend. In this interview with HT, the Bryan brothers talk about Dominic Thiem’s maiden Slam achievement, Naomi Osaka’s anti-racism activism and the things that they cherish the most about their glorious careers.

Excerpts:

How’s retirement life been so far—missing the tennis life?

Bob: It was a tough decision to announce our retirement. But our priorities were shifting, we wanted to spend more time with our families and the quarantine definitely slowed us down a bit. It was unfortunate we weren’t able to travel for those last tournaments and say our goodbyes to the crowds. But we feel blessed to have that extra time with the family and to be home in California. I didn’t really miss the US Open—I don’t know about Mike—but watching it on TV, just sitting back and enjoying it, being out of the fire. I didn’t miss being on the court; those were amazing times and memories that we will cherish forever but I like watching it on the couch and talking tennis with my kids and my wife.

And Mike how it’s been for you—doing these chat shows and not having to worry about tennis?

Well, we haven’t been doing a lot of chat shows; this is our first one in a while (smiles). But it’s been good to chill. I’m in Slovakia with my wife’s family, just spending a lot of time in nature. So we’re actually enjoying our retired life and we’ll gear up something else pretty soon.

Bob, tennis in times of a pandemic is very different, isn’t it? Being in the bubble, no crowds, no high-fives in doubles—how surreal does all that feel just watching it from the outside?

It’s definitely a big change for the players from what I’ve heard. On the positive side, you don’t have a lot of distractions that you would have during a Grand Slam—the sponsor visits, the parties, etc. You can really focus and get your business done. The players had these suites in the stadium where they had the massage table and they could get their whole team up there, order room service. So it was very convenient and easy for the players to perform at a high level. But then you take out that adrenalin rush that you get from the crowd. As you’ve seen over the years, with the ‘Big Three’, how the crowds have driven some of those finals to insane levels. But I thought the matches (in this US Open) were very high quality. I would’ve been interested to see how the crowds would’ve reacted to what we saw in the (Dominic Thiem v Alexander Zverev) final. It was high drama. I was feeling the nerves for those guys—both going for their first Slam wins. You could see what it meant to them. And I feel very bad for Zverev, obviously he’s devastated but I’m sure he’ll bounce back from that.

Mike, talking about the men’s final, it perhaps wasn’t the highest quality of tennis but still a gritty win for Thiem. You believe he deserves the Slam win completely, even with the ‘Big Three’ missing?

Yeah. I think he (Thiem) is one of the hardest working guys on the tour. I mean watching him in the gym, he kills himself for hours and hours—I don’t know how he can do it day in and day out! All that work finally paid off. He was nervous. I think they both saw a huge opportunity not having the ‘Big Three’ there, but he’s a Grand Slam champion now and no one can take that away from him.

This is maybe a changing of the guard. Now that he’s got that monkey off his back, I’m sure he’ll play a lot looser in Grand Slam finals. I don’t think he played his best match, maybe because of all the weight of expectations. But now it releases all that pressure. The same thing happened with Bob and I—it took a few years for us to get that first Grand Slam but once we did, we found that formula. Everything becomes a little easier then. So he’s definitely deserved it—both those guys were deserving, actually. It’s exciting to see a Grand Slam final come down to a tie-breaker. Last year, we had the Novak-Roger Wimbledon breaker, so that is two in two years. It’s pretty cool, it’s good for tennis. And it was high drama, even with no fans I think it was a great story.

Talking of great stories, Bob, there was Naomi Osaka with her incredible tennis and anti-racism activism during the US Open. Do you think she is a good role model to have in the US, both on and off the court?

She’s a great role model. She stands up for what she believes in. I think she conducts herself great on the court. She has an exciting game to watch. A lot of kids can really look up to her. And she’s just getting started, she’s got many great years ahead of her. She’s already got three Grand Slams, and she’s cemented her place in the Hall of Fame in the future. I think she’ll become more consistent now. And all the stuff she did with the activism and the Black Lives Matter, it was a strong message that she put out there. Massive respect for standing up for what she believes in.

Talking about doubles from an Indian point of view, you had Rohan Bopanna making the quarters with Denis Shapovalov. It’s a very interesting combination—there’s almost a 20-year age gap between the two yet something seems to be clicking for them. Do you to see a successful doubles pair in there?

Mike: I think they make a great team. Bopanna has been around for so long, he’s got so much experience. Shapovalov brings a lot of talent and flair. It’s just a great contrast of style—having a doubles specialist and a singles guy who can hit all the shots and be really flashy. It’s great to see Rohan still doing so well into his 40s. I think if they stick around together for a while, maybe they can be holding a Grand Slam trophy. Rohan’s doing a great job; he’s been one of the legends of doubles and has been carrying the Indian flag really well without (Mahesh) Bhupathi and (Leander) Paes now.

Bob: You have Rohan with the experience who is leading the team, guiding and helping shape the talent of Shapovalov on the doubles court. They’re very dangerous, they can beat any team on any given day. It’s just about putting it together in the big moments.

Finally, looking back at your careers, numbers don’t really reflect the entire story of your impact on the doubles world. But what is the one thing that you’re most satisfied about when you look back now at your achievements?

Mike: We can look back and have no regrets. I think every day we worked to get better. We played with a lot of passion, and our friendship and love for each other never really waivered. We stayed loyal. There were many down moments in our careers where we bounced back and it made us stronger as brothers. Now that we look back at it all—yes the numbers are great but we were putting our heads down and killing hard every day; never really satisfied with a couple of Grand Slams here and there. We just kept going. Now we can really exhale and appreciate what we did. We’re happy we made doubles bigger. Doubles needs a little bit of love; it’s never going to be as big as singles but it just needs a little bit of extra attention. So we were happy we could provide that, and I think it’s in a great spot right now. I think it’s popular and has a great place in the game. We’re always going to be there to support doubles, but there are a lot of stars now and great teams to carry the flag.

Bob: I’m just proud that we were able to do this for so long. Twenty-three years on the Tour with my best friend Mike. It was an amazing journey with a lot of highs and a lot of lows. But, like Mike said, we bounced back after those tough defeats. We weren’t playing for the prize money, we were just playing for the thrill of competition, and to get better every single day. We tried to keep improving after tough losses that put us get back in the gym on that Monday morning. It made us work a little bit harder. And I’m proud to share all that with my family and my kids—hopefully they remember what I did. Like Mike said, doubles is in a good place. It was an honour to play with the Indian Express (Paes-Bhupathi). I thought they were similar to us, they were very fun to watch for the fans—Leander with all the skills and talent and Mahesh with those solid returns. We were lucky to be in a great generation of doubles players. So it was fun.

Leander says you guys constantly talk about who should get the chest-bumps patented… You guys want to have a final say on that?

Bob: Yeah, it’s funny, when we played him in the (2006) Australian Open final—him and Martin Damm were chest-bumping and we were chest-bumping! Supposedly he was doing it when we were in diapers. We first saw it from the Jensen brothers back from the 1993 French Open. Then we started doing it in college. Our fraternity brothers loved it; they were calling for more so we brought it on the Tour. A lot of the veteran guys didn’t like what we were doing early in our career. Finally, we got the respect and it became our thing. But yeah I guess Leander was doing it long before us. We didn’t see it, but I’m sure he’s telling the truth! He has a nice little chest-bump, but it’s good when you have a partner that is about the same size and you because when him and Damm were hitting it was a little lop-sided (laughs).

The Bryan Brothers will appear on the show ‘Chai with Raja’ that debuts on Saturday, 19th September on Sony Six channels.

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