One of the smartest moves the ATP has made in recent years is to open the concluding day of many events with the doubles final. All too often in the past, when the doubles final was played after the singles, the energy would drain from the venue as everyone from fans to tournament officials and traveling tennis roadies began making their way out of the event. "The funny thing is that the great majority of recreational tennis players mostly play doubles," Wayne Bryan, father of the world's best team, twins Mike and Bob, said at the Davis Cup final in November.
Using the doubles final as an appetizer for the singles worked perfectly at Sunday's SAP Open in San Jose. Of the 7,166 spectators who came to that final, roughly three-quarters were already in their seats to watch the match between the Bryan brothers and Scott Lipsky and David Martin. There was even a local angle, as all four players had attended nearby Stanford University. (Ironically, Lipsky-Martin's coaching duo is a pair of notables from Stanford rival UC Berkeley, Scott McCain and Steve Devries.)
At the pro level, doubles has been an awkward stepchild. Time was when top singles players also competed in doubles. But beginning in the late '70s, a combination of physical demands and increased prize money made it expendable. Though there have been occasional aberrations over the years such as John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, for the most part, top-10 singles players eschew doubles.
Recognizing how doubles had declined, several years ago a cabal of tournament directors and ATP officials sought to streamline doubles even more, triggering the threat of a lawsuit from many doubles players. Soon enough, both sides came to terms.
And yet, while contemporary doubles can be quite engaging and showcase a great deal of the net play missing from much singles play, most top-ranked doubles players are faceless, their ability to generate followings hindered by such factors as frequent musical chairs-like partner changes to mildly limited promotional efforts (that is, beyond the occasional ATP advertising campaign). Yes, there are a few year-in, year-out standouts such as Mark Knowles and Leander Paes who have earned modest cult followings. But, for the most part, the real saving grace of doubles has been the Bryan brothers.
To watch righty Mike and lefty Bob play together is to witness an extraordinary degree of choreography. Corina Morariu, a former pro who was once ranked No. 1 in the world in doubles, once joked that, "You could have been playing doubles your whole life and you'd still have been together nine months less than Mike and Bob." But mere genetics is only the start of how these two work together.
"It's remarkable how well-organized these two are with their practice time," Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said recently. If they may seem chatty and carefree off the court, once on it the twins are as disciplined as martinets. They religiously practice a series of drills. There's the "Alley Rally," where the two strike forehands, a good way to hone drives that go straight through the middle of the court -- a critical part of doubles. Then there's the "RDC," shorthand for the Rumanian Davis Cup, a zigzagging, fast-handed volley drill father Wayne picked up when watching Rumanians Ilie Nastase and Ion Tiriac years ago. And there are others, covering the vital serves, returns and sequences that make doubles so different from singles.
It's also deceptive. Certainly Bob and Mike can generate power. Bob's lefty serve regularly exceeds 125 mph, and his forehand is also lethal. Mike is the better returner.
"You watch how soon he gets ready, lined up and primed to strike the ball early and hard," said Mark Bey, a long-standing coach from Chicago who's watched the brothers play since they were juniors.
To see the two blow people away with pace is in some ways a perfect fit with the enthused athleticism of their father Wayne -- a former high school quarterback and varsity tennis player at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
But raw heat takes a team only so far. Doubles, even at the pro level, is the art of the ordinary -- smart shots down the middle, volleys that keep the point alive, transition shots that stay low. The Bryans learned many of these subtleties while working with their mother, Kathy Blake, a former touring pro once ranked No. 11 in the U.S.
Said Bob, "We'd go out with her to Court 12 of our club and she'd show us all this stuff. It was incredible." As juniors, at a time when many youngsters were mostly hovering at the baseline, Bob and Mike were encouraged to be all-court players. On occasion, Wayne and Kathy would even offer them a quarter each time they came to net.
Seeing the Bryans emerge as a great team has been one of the best feel-good stories in tennis this century. While of course they bring high energy to Davis Cup, perhaps what's more impressive is that they compete with as much passion everywhere they play. Again, that's a contrast to the clock-punching expression often seen on the faces of both singles and doubles players.
"There's no question, the court comes alive when they're in action," McEnroe said.
But not always in their favor. Sunday in San Jose, Lipsky and Martin hung tough with the brothers. The left-handed Martin in particular was alert, using angles and power. Yet even when the first set entered a tiebreak, the odds favored the Bryans. Lipsky and Martin were ranked only 57 and 61, respectively. But in this case, the underdogs came through, winning that tiebreak 7-5 and taking the second set, 7-5. Having beaten the second seeds in the quarters, Martin and Lipsky had earned their biggest win ever.
Said Martin, "It's a huge confidence boost to get two quality wins against two of the best teams in doubles these days -- Bhupathi-Knowles and the Bryan brothers. It's a new level for us. We haven't quite been there, so I look forward to whatever comes next."
For the Bryans, even in the wake of that loss, even if two months into 2008 they have yet to win a title, in large part they are well on their way to building a legacy as the most successful American players of their generation -- and that includes singles. Assuming they can continue opening more final days, they should be able to earn an even larger following as time goes on.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.