“Chest-bumps? Oh, all the time. We always have a laugh about who owns it, who started it, who should patent it,” Leander Paes says with a chuckle, while talking about his conversations with the Bryan brothers over the renowned doubles celebration.
While that debate rages on, the retirement of the Bryan brothers has brought to an end the greatest partnership in professional tennis. There was a lot more to Bob and Mike Bryan than their celebrations, and their fellow chest-bumping Indian doubles legends and rivals, Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, know it all too well.
By their own admission, Paes and Bhupathi would’ve added more to their tally of eight and four Grand Slam doubles titles, respectively, had the over the six feet tall identical twins not stood in their way. Paes lost four major finals with different partners to the Bryans, beating them only once. Quite like Bhupathi, who was twice beaten by the twins in Slam finals, including one with Paes at the 2011 Australian Open.
As a pair, Bhupathi and Paes ran into the Americans six times, beating them the first time they crossed paths at the 2001 Atlanta Open semi-finals before splitting the win-loss ratio equally.
The Bryan brothers finished with great numbers—16 Grand Slams as a pair, 119 titles (an open era record), 438 weeks as world No. 1 since turning pro in 1998 and the 2012 Olympic gold to boot. But they mean much more than just statistics, to Paes, Bhupathi and the wider tennis world.
If the Woodies (Australia’s Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde) set the bar for the dream doubles partnership during the 1990s, the Bryans raised it a level over the next decade. Both were left-right combinations, but the Americans brought in the zing to add to the southpaw Bob’s and right-handed Mike’s complementary games.
“I always knew that they were special ever since I first saw them in 1995. Being twins, they had this genetic understanding with each other. They had intuition; they could read other’s minds without even speaking to each other,” says Paes. “They stuck together during the tough times – in a match and in their careers. And that compatibility showed in their game. You knew that if Mike made the return of serve, Bob was so good at net that he would cover the whole net with his reach. God, who wouldn’t be under pressure then?”
Bhupathi agrees. “They were the perfect combo. It’s very hard to create a perfect doubles pair. Everyone thought the Woodies were, but these guys played a much more powerful brand of doubles, which evolved with the sport as well,” he says. “Both of them had big, booming serves, so it wasn’t like the fire was just from one guy. Whatever Mike had missing in his game, Bob made up for it and vice-versa. They were a complete unit, which made it very hard to beat them. They had power, touch and energy. That’s what made them great.”
The Bryans can be credited with not only raising the level of play in doubles, but also selling the product to the masses. There were more bums on seats to watch the twins flaunt their skills even as doubles matches started shifting to the main courts during the big tournaments.
“They were able to sell tickets,” says Bhupathi. “Because they were a great doubles team, they played with a lot of energy and also because they were identical twins. People always wanted to watch them play. So they would always get attention and stadium courts, which was great for doubles because it would showcase our discipline a lot more.”
Paes feels that the Bryans could well have done what the greats in the singles field do – make the youngsters pick up the sport. “In the US, a lot of kids want to be the like the Bryan brothers now. That’s really commendable, because it shows what great ambassadors of the game they are. They popularized doubles massively.”
There were popular off the court too. Mike and Bob didn’t just share appearances, they were also equally courteous. “I always knew who was who—that is part of my job,” says Paes with a laugh. “I saw them grow up from when they were rookies through so many years right before my eyes. We’ve also had our share of great battles—Mike and I have gotten into each other a few times because we are both feisty competitors on the court. But the respect that both the boys and I share with each other is equally special.”
There perhaps won’t be another doubles pair quite like the Bryan brothers – and the doubles field will be a whole lot poorer without them. But Bhupathi believes that their shoes will be filled, eventually. “When Sampras finished nobody knew Roger would come; when Sachin finished nobody knew Virat would come. Someone always comes around,” he says, before adding, “So will there be another combo like theirs? I’m sure there will be. But for now, let’s celebrate the Bryans.”