The chest-bumping Bryan brothers can complete the first men’s doubles Grand Slam tennis sweep in 62 years this week, yet they each would earn less than 9 percent of the singles champion’s prize at the U.S. Open.
The American duo’s success comes amid a period of unprecedented failure for U.S. men in singles, and as doubles teams are getting an even smaller portion of the overall prize money at tennis’s biggest events.
The winning men’s and women’s doubles teams at the National Tennis Center this week will receive $460,000 in prize money, or $230,000 per player. Each singles champion will get $2.6 million -- with the four losing singles quarterfinalists, both men and women, taking home $325,000 apiece.
“As far as doubles, it’s on life support,” nine-time Grand Slam doubles champion John McEnroe said on a conference call. “The Bryans are doing a great job trying to prop up doubles. Without them it would be in even worse shape than it is.”
Bob and Mike Bryan are two victories from winning their fifth U.S. Open title. That would make them the first men’s duo to win all four Grand Slam tournaments -- Wimbledon and the Australian, French and U.S. opens -- in a calendar year since Australians Ken McGregor and Frank Sedgman in 1951.
By defeating Britons Colin Fleming and Jonathan Marray 7-6 (9-7), 6-4 on Sept. 2, the top-seeded Bryans advanced to a semifinal match against the fourth-seeded team of Leander Paes of India and Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic.
There have been three women’s doubles Grand Slams and three in mixed doubles since 1951, as well as singles slams by three women -- Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court and Steffi Graf -- and one man, Rod Laver, who did it in 1962 and 1969.
The 35-year-old Bryans, native Californians who attended Stanford University from 1996-98, have won 15 Grand Slam titles, as well as the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics. Each has collected about $10.5 million in winnings. They are global crowd favorites who celebrate winning points with chest bumps.
“We have the twin thing going for us,” Bob Bryan said at a U.S. Open news conference on Sept. 1 after the brothers reached the quarterfinals. “You’ve got to do it on a great point or at the end of a match, because it doesn’t look good when it’s a crowd just of, you know, crickets.”
The Bryans are a rare success story in recent U.S. men’s tennis, which has struggled since the retirements of 14-time Grand Slam singles champion Pete Sampras in 2003 and eight-time champion Andre Agassi in 2006.
No American man reached the fourth round at this year’s U.S. Open, the first time that has happened in the tournament’s 133-year history. At Wimbledon, no U.S. man reached the third round for the first time in 101 years. The last American man to win a singles Grand Slam title was Andy Roddick in New York in 2003.
Even as they try to uphold the reputation of U.S. men’s tennis, the Bryans’ specialty is falling further behind in prize money.
At the start of the professional era in 1968, winning men’s doubles teams ($4,200) made 30 percent of the singles champion ($14,000). Three years later, the men’s doubles prize per team had dropped to $2,000.
By 2003, men’s and women’s doubles winners ($400,000) were up to 40 percent of the singles winners ($1 million). In the last decade, however, the rise in doubles prizes have stalled while singles earnings have gone up 160 percent -- so doubles winners now get less than 18 percent of the singles champions.
There are similar disparities at the other Grand Slam tournaments. At Wimbledon this year, winning doubles teams earned about 19 percent of the singles winners; at the French Open, it was 24 percent, and at the Australian Open it was 20 percent.
“I sometimes wonder if there should be doubles,” McEnroe said. “I don’t see what doubles, at this stage, is bringing to our sport.”
For the Bryans, who have won 91 tournament titles together and are on a 24-match winning streak, the riskiest part of matches can be their chest bumps.
Mike Bryan said celebratory bumps happen after one brother sees “the twinkle in the other twin’s eyes,” and both pointed out there have been painful encounters.
“One time in our rookie season we did a chest bump at the end of a match in Miami,” Bob Bryan said. “We saved some match points. Mike kind of grabbed me, which is a no-no. So I came down on his foot and sprained my ankle. I was on crutches for a few days. That was a bad one.”
Patrick McEnroe, former captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team for which the Bryans have a 22-4 record, said the brothers’ “passion for tennis is the biggest reason for their success.”
“They love tennis and love to get out there,” Patrick McEnroe said on the conference call with his brother. “They’ve obviously honed their skills so they’ve become doubles experts. I think that was the right decision to make for the longevity of their career.”
The Bryans -- Mike is two minutes older than Bob -- say they want to continue playing together through the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The partnership is still fun, they said, especially when they’re doing well.
“It’s always cozier when we’re winning,” Mike Bryan said. “He treats me with more respect when I’m playing well and making returns.”
“Look, we’re twins, our relationship is never going to fall apart,” Bob Bryan added. “We are always going to be very loyal to each other and always going to be really tight. That’s never going to change. Life is good right now.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at firstname.lastname@example.org