When we decided to learn more about doubles on the tour, we went straight to the top, to the “Masters of the Doubles Game,” Mike and Bob Bryan. The Bryan Brothers are the winningest team ever, with 112 titles and 450 weeks ranked number 1 in the world.
In this interview, Bob and Mike talk openly and honestly with her former coach Edgar Giffenig about doubles: How it has changed, the scoring system, tactical adjustments they had to make, the mental game, their practices, scouting and much more.
We are tremendously grateful for their time and honesty and their insightful and instructional commentary. They really provided us with a window into the minds of the greatest doubles players of all times.
Thank you Mike and Bob!
Edgar: Ok boys let’s talk doubles. You have been on the tour a long time, and when we were travelling together if you didn’t serve and volley, I would have probably kicked your butt. Right? So that has changed a lot, right?
Mike: Yes, it has changed a lot. Bob is now staying on the baseline on his second serve about 50% of the time, just because the returns have gotten so good. I think technology has changed the strings, the racquets, where returns are weapons. Guys can hit it down at your feet and you are hitting shoe lace volleys where the guy is all over the net poaching So, he feels that he stays back, hits a forehand and can neutralize the point. That has evolved in the last 10 years. You see, half the teams, more than half the teams are serving and staying back.
Bob: Yes always, Some guys never serve and volley. I would say half the guys are playing that style. I think the technology, the strings, more powerful racquets have created harder returns, more spin, lower returns.
Edgar: So, the serve has not evolved more than the return?
Bob: I think that strings , you can swing harder and the ball goes in more, ja ja..
Mike: Yeah, you can just tale a huge cut and it just bites with Luxilon. Most guys use Luxilon.
Edgar: You do not get the same effect with a mixed pattern?
Mike: We like the mixed. We are from the old school, 15 or 20 years ago. We like feel.
Bob: We use gut.
Mike: With going full Lux you loose a little bit of feel, but yeah…the game has changed.
Bob: There is also another reason, because in 2005 they let singles player in on their singles ranking into the doubles tournaments – a whole different population of players playing doubles. They did not need to get their doubles ranking up to enter the tournament. They could just play, so, that cut half the doubles guys out and then put singles guys in.
Edgar: Is it the same way now? You can get into the doubles with your singles ranking?
Mike: It is just the highest ranking either singles or doubles. The cuts are tough. The cut in Madrid 10 years ago would have been combined like a 100, now it is about 50.
Bob: It is only, I would say, 15 or 20 doubles guys left that are actually making a living on the tour.
Edgar: That is it.
Bob: Exclusive doubles specialists. Where before 80 or 90 of the top 100 would have a chance to play these type of tournaments. Now there is 20 guys, maybe, that can do it.
Mike: And when they changed the rule and let singles guys in on their doubles ranking, guys were just entering to pick up the check and didn’t really know how to play doubles. You could expose their volleys. Like, we would just return up the line and they would bump one back and you could just whale at them, but now all these guys have played so much…
Bob: 10 years
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Mike: ..and they have played 10 years of doubles and they all know the doubles strategy, they get close to the net. Their hands are better. So, it has raised the level of doubles a lot, cause now they can volley, they can hit groundies and now, I think, it is the cream of the crop, the best doubles guys and the singles players that can play good doubles.
Bob: And the prize money has gone up so the players value the matches, I think, a little more.
Edgar: So you feel in general the doubles game has improved?
Bob: Yeah, it has improved a lot. There is no one out here just partying, having fun, living the life anymore. Everyone’s got a trainer, a coach. The doubles players, everyone is working hard in the gym. I would say 20 years ago it was a different feel.
Mike: It is more high quality. I mean, we used to, our first couple of rounds we used to kind of be laughing at some of these teams. Ok, we would win a match 1 and 2 and now from the first round…
Yesterday our first round was a breaker. We haven’t played an easy match for a few years.
Edgar: Well the other thing that makes it really tough is the change of scoring.
Mike and Bob: Yeah, yeah.
Edgar: That is unbelievable, isn’t it?
Mike: It is high stress, high pressure. You cannot give up an early break. You have to be ready to go, like we are in the gym before a match. We are going on the court with about an hour in the gym full sweat.
Edgar: An hour in the gym?
Mike: Yeah! The first service game if you get broken, you are done. I mean, you lose the first set and…
Edgar: Bye, thank you guys! You might as well go home.
Mike: Sure, you lose the first set and you know you are going to have to win a breaker to win the match. A Breaker, we’ve played tons of breakers and we looked at our record the other day. 10 years of breakers and we are a 50/50 team. So it is a coin flip.
Mike: Yes, it is head or tails coin -flip in a breaker, so you have to win in straight sets to be secure. But we though that with the addition of, the super-breaker and the no ad points it would bring a lot of luck to the match, and there are matches where we win more points and we lose the match but still the better teams usually win over time.
Bob: It shuffles out. It shuffles the top after a year.
Edgar: It seem to me that it does give a little more of an advantage to the underdog.
Bob and Mike: Yeah, Yeah.
Edgar: Is that for sure?
Mike: Yeah, there have been times where we have dominated a match 50 minutes. We are up a set and a break and then we are sitting in the locker room after 10 minutes and we were losers. How did that happen?
Edgar: Yeah, how did we lose that match?
Bob: One three all point.
Mike: Or you win the first set and lose the second set 6/0 and then you play a breaker, come on, what is up with that? There have been a few time when we thought: this is an injustice.
Bob: But also in turn it has added some time to players’s careers.
Edgar: That is true.
Bob: Yeah, it is easier on the body. You know the matches are 20, 30 minutes less. So you add up all that time for a year. Less mileage. You know Daniel Nestor is turning 44 this year.
Edgar: He is still doing pretty well.
Bob: Yeah he is still making money. We are 38. So those players are getting older. We are still all surviving, but I think it is because of all the stuff we are doing in the gym. Everyone is more professional.
Bob: Diets are better.
Edgar: In general, the old timers do seem to serve and volley more.
Mike: Yeah, we definitely think there is an advantage to getting two guys to the net. We like our chances when we are all at the net. Yeah, whenever we play in practice two up/two back,. Then the net guys, the good net guys usually win. You can put a ball away easier at net. That is our advantage, we love to get tight to the net. Now we have seen teams take a page out of our book and they get really tight to the net, so we have to change our game, mix in the toppy lob. We used to never work on that shot. The toppy lob can move guys back a bit. We are working on that. Now we are working, when guys are two back, we are working on drop volleys. We used to try to stick a deep volley but now guys groundstrokes are so good. They just step back and they zip one, you know, and they can work the angles so we are working on drop volleys.
We had to evolve our games and bring more variety. We used to be just the power team, now we are trying to mix it up. I am even working on the chip lob return, which I never used.
Edgar: Yeah, I was going to tell you they get so tight to the net but then they serve so big.
Mike: It is funny, no one used to get tight, and we used to watch guys on the service line. It is so much easier to make the volley when you are tight. And I think we made a doubles video about 3 or 4 year ago for a web site and our ”Secret Sauce” was to get tight to the net.
Edgar: That is the problem, everyone bought it.
Mike: Yeah, everyone bought it and they are using the “Secret Sauce” on us. Ha, Ha
Edgar: Now the “Counter Secret Sauce” is the lob, Ha, ha..
Bob: Yeah, we have to figure out something.
Mike: Or just don’t do another video, or do it when you retire. Ha, ha
Edgar: Yeah, that is what I felt. Everybody is tight.
Bob: Everyone is tight and the holes are small.
Edgar: …Plus big serves.
Bob: Yeah, the guys serve big.
Mike: Back in the day it used to be about a good body serve a high firsts serve percentage.. the guys are going for the bomb, the ace, the free point.
Edgar: The high serve percentage, is that out of the table?
Bob: No, no
Mike: No, We like to serve, when we are serving 75% and above we win most of our matches. If we are at 50%, if you look at our second serve percentage…
Bob: We are winning about 50% of our second serve points but most doubles teams are winning only about 40% of their second serve points. The first serve in doubles is…
Bob: It is big. On the singles court guys aren’t hitting a lot of body serves. When is the last time you saw Murray hit a body serve. But in doubles it is a lot more important. It cuts the angles away and it is harder to hit a return low when you are trying to get out of the way.
Mike: Different strategies. We used to just play straight up and now we are throwing the “I” formation, just more smoke screen stuff trying for the guys to get their eyes off the return. You have to mix that in because if you give a guy just a straight shot cross court they can usually dial in. Everyone is so good.
Edgar: Is there actually time to fake?
Bob: There is still a little time to fake, yeah. You just try to do anything you can to get the attention of the returner, make sure he does not feel he has a clear shot cross court return. So yeah, call switches. Sometimes Mike gets in the “I” formation, fake yeah, it is all, throw different stuff at them, break their rhythm.
Edgar: How is it? How important is the scouting of the other teams?
Mike: It is massive! I mean, we have a great coach that scouts every match. You know, like lots of teams mix it up every week, so you have to know what they are doing well that particular week. That particular match before we play them. Yeah, it is always adding like a new wrinkle. We have played these teams 30 or 40 times and Nestor over 50 times. And, so he knows exactly what we love, we know exactly what he loves, so we have to add an element of surprise that certain day, maybe, me adding a chip lob or doing something different.
Edgar: So you say: This important point he probably thinks we will do this…
Mike: yeahh, yeahh. He knows on a big point, a break point, he has a better backhand. Everyone knows it, so I am supposed to serve to his forehand and make him go up the line, which he doesn’t like but he knows that we know he does not like it….
Edgar, Mike, Bob: Ha, ha, ha..
Mike: So do we go to his best shot?
Edgar: But he knows you might be changing, so…
Mike: it is like a psychological thing, ha, ha..
Bob: One thing about scouting opponents is the team we played yesterday we played last week in Barcelona and for this match they switched sides.
Bob: Kubot went from the ad to the deuce. We would have never known had our coach not gone out and scouted, so we had to change our strategy a little bit. But he gave us a good game plan and it ended up working. Yeah, scouting is big and last night I saw a few players at our match. You know, they are checking us out to see what we are doing if they play us at the French or Rome.
Mike: The margins are so fine in doubles. There are a few points you just got to win. It is the break points, It is the big points in the breaker. It is basically who executes on those few big moments who is going to win the match.
Edgar: So the mental game is big?
Mike: Yeah, it is mental.. You have to basically rise up and beat the team. No one is going to give it, you have to hit the winner. That is what we have been working on, in our practices we are trying to warm up in the alleys, cause basically you have to hit an alley, you can’t hit through the guys anymore. Their hands are so good, so you have to hit a winner. When you have a good shot you have to go alley or hit right through the middle, but you have to hit a winner. Not the days when you could just hit at their body and they are just going to fumble a ball. You got to be aggressive.
Edgar: How about on the returns, is the strategy still trying to make them play a lot?
Mike: Yeah, you make them play, you are trying to make a lot of balls. We always return best when we are trying to play aggressively. You got to aim for the alley you got to aim low. A lot of times now when guys are standing back, I am trying to hit and come in. So you want to hit a deep one. If you just, put it in play, they will set up their forehand and shove it down your throat. Aggressive returns are the name of the game. You don’t ever see any slice returns anymore, which you used to see.
Bob: The guys we played yesterday, both guys, on every return the whole match they just swung as hard as they could..
Edgar: They go just for a winner.
Bob: Yeah, they went for as hard as they could hit the ball because they knew if they just made it, we would control the volley and so they said, we are better off just swinging for the fences. They are banking on making four big ones in a game game, getting one break and that is the set. They are just piecing it together. So yeah, doubles return, like in singles you can block back a return, you can slice it back.
Bob: There is no slice.
Edgar: There is no slice in doubles?
Bob: Unless it is a lob.
Mike: Doubles you have to move forward and take a good cut at it.
Edgar: Basically, the lob is a topspin lob.
Bob: Yeah, on a return, the chip lob is working a lot. Especially when guys are doing the “I” formation, but the second ball that comes at you it has to be a topspin lob. Yeah it has to be an aggressive shot.
Edgar: The other thing that I do not see very often anymore is signals. Everyone like, talks to each other, Is it because someone was maybe… coaching…?
Mike: There is the odd corrupt coach that is in the back…
Edgar: Checking to read the signals and is letting his players know.
Mike: Yes, we have seen that before. We come together and do a little huddle. They usually call where they will serve and if they are going to move or stay. That is just a given. We are kind of different, we don’t do a lot.., when Bob is serving he does not like to tell me where he is going to serve., because he just feels like he is more in rhythm. So we just kind of read it more just because we play so much together.
Edgar: Do you tell him that you are crossing or it is just your feel.
Bob: On Mike’s serve, I am not telling him I am going to poach unless it is a called play. If it is a called play, something that has been set up before, but a lot of times I am just kind of looking for a good serve. If it goes to his backhand, I know he likes to go cross-court. I will just drift across.
Mike: It is all scouting report, like if you know, Nestor likes to hit his backhand inside out. He knows I am serving T, he is going to probably poach more on that. Some guys love to go up the line on a big point, you fake and stay. It is just playing the percentages, moving the percentages in your favor.
Bob: Yeah, a lot of our stuff is free lance. It is poaching when the server is not actually covering behind. A lot of times we are leaving the alley open and we are just feeling it out.
Mike: taking a gamble.
Bob: taking a gamble, yeah.
Mike: Usually we have to take the gamble. In super breakers we like to gamble a little bit more. I mean if they can beat you up the line in the alley, too good. You got to make the cross. A lot of guys they serve and put their head down, and that is kind of when you make your move. But you are always moving forwards and you are smothering and you make them think that you are staying and you just take one or two steps towards the net and poach. The great poachers are usually one or two feet from the net once they make contact with the ball, so, I mean that makes poaching easy when you get tight. It is the “Secret sauce.”
Edgar: It is a lot easier to hit it from here (High).
Mike: The court opens up.
Edgar: I formation, they seemed to do it a lot and then a bit less. Is that right?
Bob: I think the Woodies kind of started that in the 90’s. We never played the I, until recently we started implementing it a little bit. There is the I formation teams and then the normal teams. We felt a lot like the guys that did not want to hit the volley a lot were doing the “I” to try to throw teams off. Most of the doubles guys now are doing the “I” to throw off the singles returners. A lot of these guys don’t see the return as well, when a guy is standing in the middle of the court, so like Roger/Tecau, Murray/Soares, Melo/Dodig, a lot of these guys are doing exclusive “I.” So, even though we are not doing it that much, a lot of top teams are only doing it. Yeah, that has become more of a trend, I think.
Mike: And it is now where usually the guy stays kind of in the middle and kind of blankets the crosscourt return, but if you can hit a good return in the alley, up the line, you can usually win the point. So, they are just banking that you cannot do that. The reason why we don’t do it, is because we are a little bit slower out of the “I.” We are bigger guys and to get down low at 38 and pop up, ha ha…like young bucks…Booo…We feel like we are a little bit slow. Yeah, we like to just kind of read it.
Edgar: And, so, how about the future, I mean you are basically having a lot of fun still?
Bob: Yeah, we are taking one tournament at a time now. Life has changed a lot. You know we both have nice lives at home and a family but we are having fun and we are doing this still. We just have to weigh how our wives are feeling. How our minds are doing., and just, you know, family life.
Mike: (to Bob) How is your mind doing?
Bob: I am hanging in there. I am hanging tough.
Mike: We are sharing a room this week and our beds are one inch apart, ha ha,
Bob: We are bonding.
Edgar: Back to old times.
Bob: Like the old days!
Mike: Costa Rica (Alluding to a junior tournament), Coqui Ball.
Bob: We always talked about playing through the Olympics in Rio. And then when that is over we will talk. We are signing some tournament deals for next year, you know.
Bob: So we are planning to give it another run.
Mike: or we can send the check back.
Bob: Send the check back, ha ha, return the money. I already spent it. I already got diapers for that, ha, ha.
Edgar: Well, we are definitely looking forward to more Bryans. At least a few times during the year here and there. Just a little bit.
Bob: Sprinkle it in.
Edgar: Sprinkle it in. That is it, sprinkle it in.
Mike: It was fun Edgar
Edgar: That was awesome. Nice to see you again, Good luck.
Mike and Bob: Nice to see you!