Days stretch into night in Paris at this time of year, and I stayed late at the stade — the Roland-Garros stadium where the French Open championships, known here as the Internationaux de France, are held — due to the fact that the Bryan Brothers played late in the day and completed their match — they won — as dusk was falling.
My friends, the Bryan Brothers are masters. They are geniuses. They are artists. They are, as a song of my youth used to have it, poetry in motion.
And most of all, they are athletes and competitors.
Mike and Bob Bryan have dominated men’s doubles for well nigh a decade now, for a reason: they are the best at this specialty. Doubles tennis is not as glamorous and well-known as singles tennis and there are all sort of reasons for this, but the principal one is that it harks to our American love of team work, while the singles game harks to our American love of individual success.
We are a great nation because we recognize the value inherent in both. Our Great Republic was founded on the basis of individual liberty, but teamwork is what our political system is designed to achieve, with all the yelling and fighting and ultimately compromising that come with it. Our finest institutions, the Marines for example, work because of the American genius for individualism and team work.
Our sports, of course, reflect this simple but profound cultural fact. The popularity of tennis is due to its individualistic side. In this it is like golf, racing (through water, on tracks, or down mountains), target shooting. The Challenger vs. the Champ. It is boxing, without the contact. The drama this year, though to be sure it also owes much to hype, is whether the Challenger, Novak Djokovic, is going to de-throne the reigning king, Rafael Nadal, who took Roger Federer’s crown last year. This is an individual drama, based on pitting these two, or three (or four, if you include in the top group the beautifully talented but choke-prone Andy Murray) against each other and seeing who will prevail. (On the ladies’ side — but we can look into that another time.)
Doubles tennis gets short thrift in this configuration because it is nothing if not a team sport. You have to see the mighty Bryan boys to fully appreciate this, and I could not tear myself away from the No. 6 court, a single court with seats for about 50 people in the shadow of the imposing center court, aka the Philippe Chartier, named for one of the principal figures of post-World War II French tennis. You are literally at eye level with the players, and you can if you wish have the illusion of eavesdropping on Mike’s whispers to Bob between points.
I do not know if Bob and Mike Bryan are identical twins, but they look alike and they dress alike — it was black on white today, with the same Prince racquets too — and yet they are not the same. They complement each other, work together: they are a team.
Or a ballet. They are fantastic. One with the right hand, one with the left — I forgot which, but I will look at my notes in a moment — they cover the whole court, making, as Lee said of Jackson, a stone wall. You can get balls past them, as did a formidable Latin team called Giraldo & Riba (it sounded to me like the name of a fashion line, but I assure you they were good) a few times. But only a few. The Bryans kept their cool after blowing the second set by falling for a clever fake followed by a easy shot down the alley which they scrambled for and returned long, and got their revenge in the third, where they took no prisoners, 6-1.
You can appreciate doubles tennis wherever you see a finely coordinated team play against another finely coordinated team, but perhaps here at Roland-Garros you get the full sense of its value to the sport thanks to the intimate spaces on which the matches are played.
Rolland-Garros, of course, is the temple of clay surfaces, or so I am told. I have to say I have become skeptical of the whole which-surface-are-we-on discussion, but for the moment let us grant the consensus that it is the “slower” surface. So what exactly allowed Rafael Nadal to return John Isner’s 230 km/hr serves yesterday (I mean Tuesday), the surface, or his talent, since the new Balobat ball was supposed to favor Isner even as the clay was supposed to give the returner a fighting chance? Who knows? Nadal was hitting almost as hard — I incorrectly reported that he was hitting his serves much less fast than Isner, but they were clocking him at 220 km/hr, though it is true Isner’s average serve clocked above 220, whereas Nadal’s was below 200. I question whether this is as important as it sounds. John Isner played a great match, won admiration from all sides, he almost stopped the defending champion in the first round. But Nadal played better longer. Will this happen on a hard surface? Wait and see.
In the doubles match between Mike and Bob Bryan and Santiago Giraldo and Pere Riba, this non-debate would not even happen. The surface is irrelevant: doubles is a high-velocity dance, requiring reflexes and athleticism such as we are used to seeing in double plays, inside-the-paint sets, or, forgive me for crying “fire” in a crowded theater, Congressional sleight-of-hands when the rascals are over the debt ceiling.
Mike Bryan serves, right-handed (I checked my notes), as hard as John Isner, and Riba somehow gets his hand on the ball and whacks it back. But Bob, left-handed, is waiting for him at the net and you’ve just registered Riba’s whack when the yellow sphere is already heading for Giraldo’s backhand, because Bob sent it down the middle and Giraldo is right-handed. Giraldo lunges and gets a lob that would have slowed everything down in singles because Bob would have danced back to get it, but no, Mike is rushing mid-court with his racquet ready and kills it.
Two and a half seconds, max.
This requires teamwork.
At 33, the Bryans have not indicated their run has gone on long enough. The spring in their steps, the intelligence in their coordination, the mix of smart volley shots — smash when necessary, put it away craftily when you can — formidable service shots (and almost zero double faults), and surgical baseline strokes, are as effective today as they were last year and the years before. It is early in the tournament, and a few rounds to go. The Bryans represent a special kind of American can-do attitude, intense and cool, totally ready and completely loose, no-problem-you’re-good and don’t-mess-up-now, get-it-done and try-again.
They’ll never quit.