Most of the focus of recent days understandably has been on the two singles events at the US Open. Relatively little attention, as a result, has been given to the efforts of the great doubles pairing, the Bryan brothers (Bob and Mike) to write themselves into the history books. The scale of the challenge and the efforts that brought them to within a hair’s breadth of becoming the first winners of the one-year Grand Slam since 1951 are worth recording.
Perhaps, some of the reduced attention on men’s doubles has been due to the near-total absence of the very top singles players from the event. Of the top men in the game also playing regular doubles events, one has to go back to the 1980s and to players like Stefan Edberg and John McEnroe. It lacks the head-to-head gladiatorial element of singles, but has so much more in terms of strategy and subtlety
Having already won all three of this year’s Grand Slam events, the Bryans entered this year’s Open with the prospect of becoming the first men’s doubles pairing to win the one-year Grand Slam in the Open era. The last pairing to win the Grand Slam was back in the pre-Open era when Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor of Australia achieved the feat in 1951. The ‘Grand Slam’ has been achieved only on one occasion by a women’s pairing when Marina Navratilova and Pam Schriver won in 1984 – giving a measure of the difficulty in such a feat.
While several have come close by winning three of the four, it is an extremely rare event for a doubles pairing to find themselves entering the last of the four ‘majors’ of the year with a chance of gaining the ultimate crown. This is what the Bryan brothers faced this year.
Let’s look back at those doubles pairings who have come close in the past. Not long after Sedgman’s and McGregor’s achievement in 1951, the following year, the same pairing came into the last ‘major’ of the season, the US National Championships with a further Grand Slam ‘on the cards’. That year, they were not quite so fortunate, however, losing in the final to the Australian Mervyn Rose and the American, Vic Seixas. In 1953, the young Australian pairing of Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall also managed to win the first three majors of the year, only to fall at the last hurdle at Forest Hills. In 1967, John Newcombe and Tony Roche won the Australian, the French and the US, although failed to take the Wimbledon title that year. They entered the US championships that year, therefore, with the Grand Slam already out of their reach. In 1973, Newcombe won three of the Grand Slam doubles events with different partners on each occasion, only failing to win the Wimbledon title that year.
Fast forward to 1987 for the next ‘three-event’ winner, the Swede, Anders Jarryd who won his three also with different partners, one of whom was his fellow Swede, Stefan Edberg. Of the four majors, the only one Jarryd missed out on that year was Wimbledon. In 1991, Jarryd repeated his feat of 1987, of the four, only failing to win the Australian. Then in 1998, the Swede Bjorkman and the Dutchman, Eltingh faced the same challenge as the Bryans this year, when having won the Australian, the French and Wimbledon, entered the US Open with the Grand Slam for the taking. Like others before, they also failed at the final hurdle. All these feats since the days of Sedgman and McGregor in 1951 highlight the scale of the Bryan’s achievement and the difficulty of taking the one-year Grand Slam.
This year, it was felt that a pairing with the talent and successes of the Bryan’s were neatly teed up to take the Grand Slam, appropriately on their home turf. Sadly, it was not to be.
Progressing as far as the semis, they were beaten by the eventual winners, Leander Paes of India and Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic in three sets 3-6; 6-3; 6-4. Paes and Stepenek beat Peya and Soares to take the title. Having come so near to such an historic achievement must have been particularly gutting for the two Bryans.
Leaving that disappointment aside, the Bryans can point to an impressive set of career titles. Since 2005, there hasn’t been a year when the brothers have not won at least one Grand Slam doubles event. In three of those years, they have won two Slams and in one (2013) they won three. With 15 Grand Slam event doubles titles to their name, they stand third in the all-time records stakes behind John Newcombe (17) and Roy Emerson (16). As a team pairing, they hold the record for number of Grand Slam doubles titles in the Open era, ahead of Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde – unlike several other top doubles pairings, the Bryans have very rarely ever played with other partners. In terms of career titles, Bob has won 92 and Mike 94. With 92 career titles playing together, they surpassed the previous record held by the Woodies. On top of these achievements, they have both won an Olympic Gold medal, one Davis Cup and three World Tour Finals. They have also shown great success in mixed doubles with Bob taking seven Grand Slam titles and Mike taking three. These are staggering achievements and have made them the outstanding and almost unassailable pairing of the last decade.
Seeing that they are still at the peak of their careers and that doubles is a fairly forgiving format for older players, would suggest a one-year Grand Slam may not be outside their grasp. One of their undeniable strengths is their close familial relationship which is an advantage in doubles where ‘chemistry’ is all-important.
Where do they stand in the pantheon of men’s doubles pairings in history? In terms of Grand Slam titles, they are in third place, yet they hold the record for career titles. In terms of longevity, they won their first Grand Slam event in 2005, eight years ago, yet they have much tennis still ahead of them. Bob Hewitt, the great Australian/South African and regular partner of Frew Macmillan, won his first Grand Slam in 1962 and his final one in 1978 – an impressive 16-year stretch. The likes of Newcombe and Roche, John McEnroe and the Woodies have also lasted long in the game. The Bryans potentially could outlast them all. We certainly have not seen the last of them.