Bryan brothers bested at US Open
NEW YORK -- They are 35 years old, and these past 12 months had been a sweet change from all the years they'd soldiered on having to ignore the incessant talk about the diminished status and small crowds that doubles specialists enjoy today. Identical twins Bob and Mike Bryan went out and carved out a career anyway that now features more titles than any men's team has ever won.
But there was no hiding Thursday how badly they also wanted to be the first men's team in 62 years to finish off a calendar year Grand Slam too -- one of the few remaining things they've never done. And the problem was all that yearning showed up at times in their games.
It didn't help that just across the net, Leander Paes began to channel a little history of his own the longer their US Open semifinal match in Arthur Ashe Stadium went on.
Paes is 40 years old now, a little thicker in the middle and slower afoot than he was in his prime. But the Indian-born star does have seven career Grand Slam men's doubles titles of his own, and he carried his Czech partner Radek Stepanek for great stretches of the match long enough for the two of them to rally for a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win. Together, they snapped the Bryans' 28-match winning streak at Slams, and left the two Americans sitting at their news conference with thousand-yard stares, replaying how a match that started so terrifically for them as they blitzed to a first-set win suddenly began to go terribly wrong.
"You win a set," Mike said, "and then you're seeing, 'OK. You're three sets [counting the final] away from a Grand Slam.' Every point becomes just a little bigger. Every moment. It makes it a little tougher, I think."
"We knew what was riding on this match, and the opportunity of what we could have accomplished," Bob said. "In one sense, you know, this is a little bit of a relief … I don't know about Mike, but I have had a tough time sleeping in the last couple weeks."
The Bryans went on to try putting things in perspective. They harped on what a great run it's been for them. They emphasized that although Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor's 1951 Slam would now go unmatched for another year, they remain immensely proud that they did pull off their so-called Bryan Slam -- a sweep of the four majors and the Olympic gold medal in the past 12 months. They even insisted some losses in Davis Cup have stung worse than this missed opportunity because they were playing for their country then, and not themselves.
But the Bryans' usual effervescence was gone as they spoke. Sooner or later, every road in the conversation kept coming back to this missed chance to make history.
Bob said, "Probably never going to have another shot at it, so …"
"Realistically, it will probably never happen," Mike agreed. "The margins are just so fine in doubles. There are just too many great teams out there and too much that can go wrong."
At first glance, the fact that Paes and Stepanek would be the ones to topple the Bryans can look like a mild surprise. While the Bryans had been the scourge of the 2013 tour, Paes and Stepanek had only an 11-7 record coming into the match. Stepanek also had to battle back from serious neck surgery earlier this year that had made it difficult for him to even raise his right arm. They were seeded only fourth.
But what all that obscured was though the Bryans have been beating up on everyone else, they are now only 4-4 in head-to-head play against Paes and Stepanek since 2012. At times, the Bryans played like they were worried.
As the match went on, the two Americans seemed to start going for the safe shot rather than hitting out. Their service games were spectacular in the first set, but started to abandon them in the second and third (especially Bob's). It wasn't just the gusting wind that hit 20 mph that was giving them problems; it was the pressure that Paes and Stepanek began to put on them. Soon, as the Bryans admitted later, they began questioning their strategy a bit, too.
Paes had a lot to do with that. He often seemed guided to where the ball was going by some awesome premonition. No matter where the Bryans tried to hit, Paes seemed to be there and hit a better shot back.
After a trade of service breaks early in the second set, he and Stepanek rose up to win nine of the next 12 games. During one particularly torrid stretch, they seized eight straight points, and 21 of 31 overall. And Paes -- who's always had some of the best hands in the game -- seemed like he couldn't miss. He was snapping service returns back at the Bryans' feet and carving them up with reflex volleys at the net; he was drop-shotting them to death and hitting overhead smashes.
"He was on fire," Mike said.
Though the Bryan brothers squandered some break chances in the second set, the stretch of the match that will probably forever nag at them is a two-game span in the third.
Bob, serving to get to 2-3, had his serve broken at 15-40 instead. Then he and Mike squandered a triple break point chance in the very next game with Stepanek serving to let Paes and Stepanek wriggle off to a 5-1 lead.
And that was the match.
Cue the deserved talk about what an amazing 12-month run it had been.
"We really wanted it -- we could taste it," Mike Bryan said.
"Sometimes you want it too much."