Doubles specialists face unusual pressure, atmosphere at Olympics
Bob and Mike Bryan are the most decorated doubles team in professional tennis history, combining for 16 Grand Slam titles and over 100 overall in their career. They have been a part of a Davis Cup championship team representing the United States and are closing in on winning 1,000 matches on the ATP Tour.
Yet it was their victory over France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Michael Llodra in the gold-medal match of the 2012 London Games that is the most memorable of their career.
"There was no win that meant that much to us," Bob Bryan said. "We were smiling for months and we're still smiling."
"Of all the trophies that we've won, we'd give them all back to win that one that we got in London," Mike Bryan said.
Part of the allure of the Olympics is the chance for a handful of low-profile sports to take center stage during a two-week period of premier competition. Complementing those sports are ones that feature star athletes known the world over, best exemplified by basketball and tennis.
The interesting dynamic with tennis is that the sport's most recognizable stars are all singles champions like Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic.
Yet while singles gets the bulk of the attention in Olympic tennis, like it does in every tournament in the world, doubles champions get just as much of a gold medal.
"That one changed our career, we were already big in the tennis world," Bob Bryan said. "I think it just expanded our popularity outside of tennis."
The Bryan brothers make their living on the tour strictly as doubles specialists playing mostly other doubles specialists. Because of the vagaries of the qualification system and the fact that athletes must naturally play with someone from their own country, doubles teams that play together on the tour often have to be broken up come Olympic time.
That's what will happen with the tandem of Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares. The reigning Australian Open champions have been the best pair this year on tour, with Murray - the brother of Andy Murray - becoming the first Briton to earn a No. 1 ranking in ATP Tour history.
The Murray brothers will, of course, team up to represent Great Britain, something they did three times last year to help their nation win the Davis Cup. The Brazilian Soares will be a local favorite in Rio for a medal alongside Marcelo Melo, currently ranked second in the world in doubles to Murray.
There is also the likelihood of star singles players who usually never play doubles teaming up, as in 2008 when Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka captured the doubles gold in Beijing.
That helps make the event as unpredictable as it is exciting.
"I think there's one different factor in an Olympic event, is just to get a lot of new teams, guys that you've never really seen them playing together," Soares said. "You don't know what to expect.
"Even the doubles players, they have to switch. (It's) been awhile since they played or they played just a few times."
An added element from the London Games was the debut of mixed doubles, giving tennis players another chance at a medal - although there is a catch. In order to play in the mixed doubles event - a spot is somewhat coveted with a 16-team field meaning that a potential gold medal is four matches away - a player has to qualify through the singles or doubles requirements.
It means that a doubles specialist like four-time Olympian Max Mirnyi is on the bubble for the Rio Games. He and two-time Australian Open singles champ Vika Azarenka teamed up to win the inaugural mixed doubles gold in London in front of a hostile Wimbledon crowd in a tense match versus Andy Murray and Laura Robson.
"It was overwhelming because the crowd that was at Wimbledon for the Olympics was a totally different crowd," Mirnyi said. "You get a much more general sports fan rather than the knowledgeable Wimbledon fan and we went on to play the mixed literally 20 minutes after Murray beat Federer in the finals and the whole country seemed like it never stopped singing. We walked onto center court at Wimbledon and it felt like we were at a football match."
The Rio event should feature a similar crowd not used to tennis since an ATP Tour event only finally came to Brazil two years ago. Just having a big crowd in general is unusual enough for doubles matches usually contested in front of only a handful of tennis diehards.
Not only is there tension from more eyes watching the matches, it also comes from players' homelands that usually wouldn't pay close attention to a tennis tournament.
"Media made it in such a way, and Wikipedia or Google, the first thing they say is gold medalist," Mirnyi said. "They say something to stand out for an athlete and Olympics being at the top of the list, it puts more pressure on athletes because it happens every four years."
That's certainly something the Bryans felt. They made their Olympic debut at the Athens Games in 2004 as the No. 1 seeds and were knocked out in the quarterfinals. Four years later, they lost in the semifinals to Federer and Wawrinka and took home a bronze.
Having already won every Grand Slam event, there was added pressure on the Bryans by the time London rolled around and they could have been out in the first round after splitting their first two sets. But they didn't lose another over the remainder of the tournament, winning all five tiebreakers the rest of the way.
"It was the build-up of three Olympics, getting devastated in the round before the medals to coming up a little short in Beijing but winning the bronze and getting a taste of a medal. And then what we thought was our last opportunity in London to win the gold was insane," Bob Bryan said. "It took two weeks for it to even set in."
The 37-year-old Bryans believe that this year's Games will be their last.
Mirnyi was a flag bearer in London, something he felt stressed about because of his claim that Belorussian athletes who held the honor in the past had trouble delivering medals. In fact, Azarenka says the hype surrounding the opening ceremonies factored into her deciding not to be the carry the flag.
"I was supposed to be," Azarenka said. "They offered me last time. I said no because, I don't know. It is a huge honor, but I didn't even go to the opening ceremony. I went to one and it's a lot of hassle. I would rather sometimes rather watch it on TV."
Azarenka not wanting to be at the opening ceremony highlights another critical difference for tennis players at the Olympics. It's the hype and hoopla around them because of the other sports as opposed to the focus being completely on a tennis tournament in a given tour stop.
It can be a benefit to be around other world-class athletes in contrast to the bubble of life on the tour. It's something American players relish, with the Bryan brothers mentioning how they were able to watch Michael Phelps win a swimming gold and Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh compete in beach volleyball.
The Bryans are good friends with May-Treanor and Walsh and well established enough in the sports world to gain access to other major Olympic events. Lesser-known tennis players have a more difficult time seeing some of the Games' iconic athletes.
"It's actually very challenging to get to another event being from a country like Belarus because you have a certain quota of tickets that's allocated," Mirnyi said. "But I do my best. Sometimes I sneak through the securities and I try to pretend like I'm a swimmer or something like that."
"Tickets were tough," 2012 United States Olympian Donald Young said. "We only got to watch men's volleyball, it's a little unfortunate, no knock to men's volleyball but definitely wanted to watch the basketball and the beach volleyball."
The potential for the Olympics to catapult the career of doubles specialists can maybe best be summed up by someone who stunned the tennis world by winning a 1996 singles bronze, India's Leander Paes. The 42-year-old is an eight-time Grand Slam men's doubles champion and the only one to compete in each of the last six Olympics.
"Going to represent my country, my people, is really of the utmost importance to me," Paes said. "I come from a country that has 1.3 billion people, that's one-third of the world and to go and represent them is a huge honor."
It's an honor that carries a greater burden than usual for those who specialize in doubles.