Bryans closing in on century mark

Thirteen years ago, a pair of beyond-gangly identical twins from California stepped on the court at the Racquet Club of Memphis.

Bob and Mike Bryan, about 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds apiece, were 22 years old. In a fit of madness, they had just frosted their chestnut brown hair with a blast of blond.

"Horrible," Bob remembered. "But, hey, we were kids."

On the other side of the net stood the established pair of Alex O'Brien and Jonathan Stark, who like the Bryans had helped Stanford University maintain one of the nation's elite tennis programs. O'Brien and Stark were the ATP World Tour's No. 12-ranked team; the Bryans, who had been kicking around the Challenger circuit and fallen in the first round of the 2001 Australian Open, were a distant No. 64.

And yet the hard-serving, exceptionally well-positioned brothers won 6-3, 7-6 (3). It was their first ATP-level doubles title.

"They played a rock-solid match," said O'Brien, now a bank president in Amarillo, Texas. "I remember thinking, 'If they keep playing like this, they're going to be tough to beat.'"

And then O'Brien laughed.

"That was a long time ago," he said. "Man, I didn't realize it was their first title."

Today, one month into their 37th year, they find themselves with a surreal-sounding 98 ATP doubles titles. At the French Open, which unfurls starting Sunday in Paris, they can vault to within one of a unthinkable milestone.

The century mark. The Benjamin (Franklin). The Roman numeral C, which has it roots in the Latin word centuria, a unit made up of 100 parts, especially a company of soldiers. Since winning that first title in Memphis, the Bryans have soldiered on, laying waste to a formidable roster of foes.

The Bryans, as you can imagine, are well aware of the history they approach. When Bob caught up with Mike in London a few weeks ago, he found those bright-colored children's magnet letters on the refrigerator spelling out: "CENTURIANS RULE."

"Like every kid that comes from a tennis family, we just wanted to make it to the highest level," Bob said recently from Madrid. "We would have taken it -- just to be there. When we passed [Tim and Tom] Gullikson for the record for brothers [11], Tom told us, 'You're going to get to 35-40.'

"We couldn't imagine that; 35-40 would have been a mind-blower."

So what does that make 100?

"What they're doing is a joke," offered O'Brien. "It's really hard to wrap your head around. They were groomed to conquer the doubles world and they took it to another level."

The numbers have hurtled past the merely ridiculous. Now we are talking about records that go well beyond unprecedented.

The Bryans have:

• Won more professional doubles titles (98) than any team in Open-era history and perhaps ever (doubles records pre-1968 are sketchy); Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, who are second, made off with 61.

• Finished as the year-end No. 1 team nine times.

• Won 15 Grand Slam doubles titles; John Newcombe and Tony Roche, next up, won 12.

• Collected a total of $3,265,708 in prize money last year alone.

This is notable because the Bryans are vaulting up the all-time prize money list for American men, which is otherwise populated solely by singles players. While Pete Sampras ($43 million-plus) and Andre Agassi ($31 million-plus) are first and second, Bob ($11 million-plus) and Mike (just a few dollars behind) are presently Nos. 7 and 8. Guess who's at no less than a million ahead?

Why, yes, it's John McEnroe. The same cranky old man who a few months ago hammered today's game of doubles.

"Doubles -- why are we even playing it?" McEnroe asked. "Most of you guys know I love doubles. But I look at it now and say, 'What is this?' I don't even recognize what this is. I don't even know what doubles is bringing to the table. The doubles are the slow guys who aren't quick enough to play singles."

The final answer

The Bryan Brothers largely refrained from responding to McEnroe heading into their Madison Square Garden doubles exhibition with John and his brother Patrick -- it was viewed widely as an attempt to stir up interest -- but their father Wayne Bryan hoped they would "stomp" the McEnroes.

"I said just go ahead and kick his ass and make him look terrible in his home stadium," Wayne explained. "I think John thought he was going to win. It shows how far out of touch he is with today's doubles."

John, 55, and Patrick, 47, lost the first seven games to the Bryans -- in a startling 22 minutes. During the changeover, tournament and television officials pleaded with them to go a little easier to help fill out the show. The Bryans, always eager to please, put their bruised feelings aside and eased off. The McEnroes won three games before the Bryans closed them out 8-3.

"Look," Bob admitted, "we didn't love those comments. Like any sport, when they talk bad about you, it gives you incentive to play your best. The general public might not have known it going in, but it was an uneven matchup from the start."

In another triumph for doubles, the Bryans, with respect to official winnings, should both catch J-Mac by the end of the year.

Mary Carillo, who will be an analyst for both Tennis Channel and NBC at the upcoming French Open, goes back with McEnroe all the way to childhood. In fact, she won her only Grand Slam title with him, in mixed doubles at Roland Garros in 1977.

"I know John McEnroe doesn't think much of today's doubles," Carillo said recently. "But I've never seen tennis played the way it's played in men's doubles. Some of the greatest points I've seen in last 10 years are the Bryan Brothers.

"The joy with which they go about their craft, the teamwork. That's the most remarkable doubles I've ever seen."

When Pam Shriver and Martina Navratilova cashed in their long-running doubles partnership after the 1992 season, they had 79 doubles titles.

"I didn't think any doubles team would pass us by," Shriver said recently from California, "and the Bryans long passed us by. It's hard to see any other doubles team getting to that number again."

Shriver thinks the critical element in their team is the telepathy shared by twins. She has a pair herself, Ted and Sam, age 8.

"I see now how close my kids really are," Shriver said. "Mine aren't identical -- but I can only imagine if they shared more than the same birthday. To me, communication is as important in doubles as tactics and good hands. Unspoken communication is, obviously, a huge advantage."

Their father, Wayne, gets a lot of credit for bringing them into the game and making it fun at an early age. Naturally, he cites a number of other reasons for their success.

"One, they've been healthy their entire career," Wayne said. "Oh, they've missed the odd match with minor injuries and sickness, but I bet they haven't missed a handful in their career. Two, they have been astonishingly consistent. They've been No. 1 for nine years -- and the two years they missed were Olympic years, when they skew their schedule. Three, they love the game -- they love to compete."

A word of warning: Don't get him started on Johnny Mac.

"John is criticizing the boys for being non-athletic," Wayne said, revving up. "Well, they can jump higher, run faster, stuff a basketball and throw a football 55 yards with a tight spiral. They're more athletic than he ever was."

Which raises an interesting point: The Bryans are not, shall we say, exceptionally fast and, relative to most of the world's best singles players, do not move laterally with anything approaching alacrity.

"But," O'Brien pointed out, "they compensate with footwork that is impeccable and they position themselves perfectly. They both have big serves, especially Mike, the righty. They get on top of the net and pinch the middle. That means you have to take big chances when you're returning their serve. When they're returning, they keep a lot of balls in play.

"The lefty-righty combo is ideal."

Into the sunset

As you might expect, the Bryan Brothers, once an inseparable pair traveling the world and sharing a room, have evolved and diversified.

Bob married longtime family friend Michelle Alvarez in 2010 and they have a daughter, Micaela, who is 2 -- with her own inventive Twitter account -- and a 6-month-old son, Bobby Jr. Mike married Lucille Williams in 2012. The brothers both live in Florida, but are separated by a four-hour drive.

Some might have expected their tennis might suffer when they began adding to their entourage. Actually, they're playing better than ever. After winning the 2012 Olympics in London, they won four consecutive Grand Slam titles, another unprecedented achievement, which ended in the semifinals of last year's US Open. This year, they have won five titles already and had a 24-match winning steak snapped in the Madrid final by the team of Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic.

"Yes," Bob said, "I think diversions help keep your mind fresh. You can drive yourself crazy thinking about these matches when you're sitting in a hotel room. Being married, having children really puts things in perspective. The tough moments on the court don't bother you as much.

"We're interviewing nannies right now. We're going to take the show on the road."

Based on the sustained success of some of their current colleagues -- Nestor (41) and Leander Paes (40), to name two -- the Bryans say they are in the sweet spot of their careers, when they still have the hand-eye coordination and ability to move and a massive archive of experience upon which to draw.

"They're phenomenal, " said Steve Flink, a columnist for TennisChannel.com. "It amazes me they're so driven and the records mean so much to them. They're as enthusiastic as they were 10 years ago. They can't play against Nadal and Federer. Doubles doesn't have the luster of singles. None of the other teams really excite the public. But to their credit that they don't care about that."

How long will they continue to play? If they maintain their average of seven titles a year, the title total could be at 125-plus by the time they reach their 40s.

"Tomorrow's promised to no man," Wayne said. "Selfishly, I hope they keep going for a while. Could they play at this level for five years? Sure. They could fall off the pole, too. It's up to them. The thing that got them there was hard work. Putting in the time at the gym and on the practice court. They're going to have to keep doing it."

Said Bob, "It's been 15 years of going to bed early and eating the right food. We've discussed it as a team. We're thinking the 2016 Olympics [in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil] would be a good spot to sail off into the sunset."

But ...

"But," Bob added, laughing, "we're still having a blast."