Never Before Has A Bryan Family Reunion Been So Sweet
Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan arrived at last year's Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters on Monday evening, just two days before their first match. The twin brothers practised that night for two hours and enjoyed an ‘amazing’ hit. The next morning, they practised with 2018 Nitto ATP Finals qualifiers Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah.
“I was limping very visibly [during practice]. Wednesday we played our match and we won. But I took some painkillers for the next match. We won, took some more painkillers to the point where when we got to the final, I didn’t know if we could go out there,” Bob said of increasing pain in his right hip. “But when we won the title, the thrill of victory kind of takes away any pain you have, so I didn’t think anything of it.”
Bob went home to the United States after the victory and got a cortisone injection before heading back to Europe for the Mutua Madrid Open. That is when things began to change.
“The limping got worse and then I started getting crunching. We were so confident and match-tough that we kept winning matches, which was probably the worst thing for it,” Bob said. “By the final, to the ear, I could hear the sound. It was obviously bone on bone at the time. I’d worn through any last cartilage I had, so when I impacted the ground coming down from a serve, that’s when I chipped the bone and then we had to retire.”
In thousands of previous matches at all levels, the Bryans had never retired. But Bob needed a wheelchair just to get to the airport.
The brothers had started the year 26-7, including two ATP Masters 1000 titles (Miami and Monte-Carlo). A season of promise seemingly slipped away.
Bob worked hard to recover, getting a stem cell injection that was excruciatingly painful. The left-hander hoped to return at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and finally in Atlanta. But instead he decided to undergo a right hip replacement surgery in New York. No player had returned from the operation before.
“Honestly, my goal was to play on the ATP Tour again. When I went into surgery, I truly thought it was 50-50 if I would ever play again. It’s uncharted territory. I was the first guy to return with a hip replacement,” Bob said. “I’m honestly just happy to be practising and being able to finish our career together. The expectations are a little bit lower, but that doesn’t mean I’m not working just as hard, and I hate to lose just as much.”
“It was extremely brave to go and get the full hip replacement, which is a serious surgery. The incision is almost 10 inches long. That hurt, to see him down for the count,” Mike said. “But then he worked extremely hard to rehab it, and set that goal to come back on the Tour when most guys might’ve just rode it off and said, ‘I’ve done enough. I’ve achieved everything in the game. I have a family. I’m good’.”
Mike went on to win Wimbledon, the US Open and the Nitto ATP Finals with Jack Sock last year in Bob's absence. “Watching Mike on TV play all those matches, I appreciated the partner I had with his returns, the volleys, how clutch he was. Sometimes you take it for granted when you’re playing on the same side. But watching from the couch on TV, I really marveled at how he is as a player,” Bob said.
But there was never a question whether he would team with his brother again. In December, the twins convened at Bob’s home in Florida to train and regain their rhythm.
“Every day we’d try to simulate matches. But by the end of the second set, it started fatiguing his hip and then he started losing miles per hour on his serve, and then his movement would get worse,” said Mike. “In the back of our minds we were worrying a little bit and doubting whether he can come back to the level he was playing at before.”
“In early December, when we started our practices, we weren’t even close to being at that [top] level yet,” Bob said. “Even on the flight down to Australia, I had a lot of anxiety whether I could even go.”
But just more than five months after Bob’s surgery, the Bryans advanced to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, testing eventual champions Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut in a tight two-setter.
“I think we were both pretty surprised by our result at the Australian Open,” Mike said. “We could have maybe even won that match and gone on to put ourselves in position to win the tournament with him not playing for eight months and having surgery before the US Open. So it was kind of a remarkable recovery and now it’s getting even better week-in and week-out. So I think we’re going to get stronger and stronger as the season progresses.”
Doctors have told Bryan that his explosiveness, speed and flexibility will continue to improve through Roland Garros, and he is noticing consistent gains. While the results on the court will be gravy on top of his 116 tour-level titles and 10 finishes atop the year-end ATP Doubles Team Rankings (with Mike), the significance of Bob’s surgery goes beyond tennis.
“I wanted a high quality of life, just like Andy [Murray],” Bob said of the former World No. 1, whom he has texted at least once every couple of days for the past four to five months. “Right now I have zero pain, I can sleep well, I can run with my kids in the park, I can go bike riding, so it’s a win-win from here.”