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Centre Court was always intended to be quiet today, on what would normally be the middle Sunday of the Wimbledon Championships. But over the next seven days, these empty lawns will haunt the dreams of tennis professionals across the world. For some, the pain will be assuaged by the knowledge that there will be more summers to come. For others – such as the 42-year-old Bryan twins – the loss is more acute.
The most prolific doubles partnership in history, Bob and Mike Bryan were planning a farewell tour of the world’s great stadia in 2020. Their plan was to finish in front of a 24,000-strong sell-out in September – a fitting New York finale for the pair who have done more than any other man to carry American tennis in the 21st Century.
Now, they are bewildered and unsure. Should they move the whole campaign back by 12 months? The Bryans built their success on playing the percentages better than anyone else. But no-one knows the rules of this latest game, and with August’s fan-free US Open only eight weeks away, they can’t decide whether to stick or twist.
“We had a lot of stuff planned,” said Bob Bryan, the more garrulous of the twins, over a video link from his home in Florida. “We took our kids out of school to travel on the road and feel the emotions one last time. I wanted to retire this year because we still felt we could compete for big tournaments. We didn’t want to push into our mid-40s and retire on fumes. We wanted to be relevant.”
“Yeah, we had it all mapped out,” chimed Mike from his own base in Camarillo, California, which is where the twins were born. “But you can’t always write the perfect script, and this summer has thrown us a curveball. So now we’re weighing the options. If we decide not to go on next year, I don’t think you’ll see us playing for no fans in New York.”
This atypical spring has found the brothers ensconced on opposite coasts and “calling each other two or three times a day”. It’s not the longest they have spent apart, after Bob dropped off the tour for five months in 2018 to undergo the same metal hip implant that Andy Murray later emulated. But when Bob’s next-door neighbour started talking about selling his house, Mike was tempted to make an offer. His reluctant conclusion was that “I’m not sure our wives could handle it.”
There have been no freaky stories to rival the couch incident of 2011, when both brothers independently and simultaneously bought the same piece of furniture from chain stores on opposite sides of America. Instead, they have had the chance to develop contrasting interests. “Bob’s big in to art,” said Mike, “playing a lot of chess, a boat guy, living on the Intercoastal [an inland waterway which helps vessels avoid the bumpier Atlantic Ocean]. I am big into health, more spiritual. I don’t think Bob has meditated a day in his life.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” retorted Bob, “or in the boogeyman. Mike has seen it; once I do, I might believe.”
More practically, the brothers have been posting back-garden videos of volley drills performed with the Slinger Bag – an affordable new ball machine which they helped to crowdfund and are now promoting.
“We’re always looking for innovative tech,” said Bob. “We switched to a more powerful racket a couple years ago, and it actually helped turn back the clock a lot. Mike went back to world No1, and we started winning big tournaments against. The Slinger Bag simulates a [Rafael] Nadal forehand, with massive topspin, and I haven’t found other launchers that do that.”
Such training aids will play a part if the brothers are to push on towards next summer and one final Wimbledon bow. “The big bummer is missing Wimbledon,” said Bob. “Those are the most memorable weeks of the season. We stay in the village in private housing, and every time we walk in the grounds, we get goosebumps from all the history of the place. Our mom played there in the 1960s. It’s one of the reasons we’re still playing the game: to have a taste of that one more time.
“Of course, whatever happens, we will come back. We will be there as spectators, or play the senior event. We’ll get Tim Henman to help us with the memberships, bring the family.”
At Wimbledon, Bob has won the men’s doubles three times and Mike four, thanks to the bonus title he picked up in 2018 with Jack Sock while his brother was recuperating from hip surgery. Their first success, all the way back in 2006, completed their quartet of majors. But they feel most proud of 2011, because of the way they came back from a 4-1 deciding-set deficit in the fourth round against Nenad Zimonjic and Michael Llodra.
Their favourite story, though, relates to 2008, when they found themselves contesting the mixed-doubles final with partners Sam Stosur (Bob) and Katarina Srebotnik (Mike). The match was scheduled on Sunday evening after what is generally considered to have been the greatest men’s final of all – the 4hr 48min epic between Nadal and Roger Federer. It started at around 9.40pm.
“It was pitch black, but we kept going,” recalls Mike now. “We convinced our partners to play, said ‘Let’s get it in the books’. The club agreed: they didn’t want to have to open the grounds up for one match on the Monday. And in fact it rained for the next three days, so I don’t know what else we could have done. There are pictures of Bob holding up the trophy and you can’t see anything in the background.”
Bob, inevitably, has the last word. “I got cocky. There a ceremony on the court that was really just for the ushers. The crowd was maybe 20 people. So I threw the trophy up and the top flew off and hit me on the head.”
There is a precedent, then, for the Bryan brothers to play a final in an empty court. They just don’t seem keen on repeating it.