The season-long goodbye for the most successful doubles team in tennis history had started beautifully.
One by one, Bob and Mike Bryan were checking the boxes of their planned retirement tour, winning their 119th career title at Delray Beach in February. They represented the United States one last time at the Davis Cup with a qualifying match win over Uzbekistan. Indian Wells was up next, the tournament closest to where they grew up in Southern California. The rest of the year was going to be a parade of recognition and memories as they toured the Grand Slams and made the American swing one last time, culminating with their final tournament at the U.S. Open.
But like everyone else at the moment, coronavirus has put the Bryan twins’ best-laid plans on hold as they wait in separate houses a short drive apart in Camarillo, California, unsure how and when tennis will resume and whether they’ll even have a chance to play in front of American fans again this year.
“Without a vaccine, I see it as a stretch they’ll be bringing large crowds of people together to watch sports for a while,” Bob Bryan told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview with both brothers. “The idea of playing behind closed doors, for younger players that might make sense. For us it doesn’t make sense. It’s not the reason why we signed on to play these last tournaments. It’s not about playing the matches, it’s about enjoying the atmosphere one last time and that isn’t going to be there. I’m sure a lot of players need to make some checks right now, so it would be a positive for them to get the tour rolling again, but we’d want to play to fans one last time.”
What that means for the future of the Bryan Brothers’ retirement tour is one of the many questions lingering over professional tennis at the moment, which has already seen the cancellation of Wimbledon and the French Open slotted to begin in September, one week after the U.S. Open final.
If life gets back to normal this summer and the ATP tour resumes for the North American hardcourt season, the Bryans plan on playing Washington, Toronto, Cincinnati and finishing up in the U.S. Open. After 16 Grand Slam titles together and an Olympic gold medal in 2012, that would be enough.
But if that isn’t going to happen this year, could the Bryans — who turn 42 later this month — come back again in 2021?
“We haven’t gotten that far,” Mike Bryan said. “We are just watching and waiting. If the whole summer was played, that might be enough to kind of wet our whistle and say our goodbyes to the American fans and if we played the U.S. Open, I think we’d prefer to go out that way. But if we don’t get any last matches or tournaments this year … I think the discussion (to play one more year) will be on the table. We just have to see how it shakes out.”
So far, there aren’t a lot of answers. But the Bryans are determined to make the best of life in limbo, as long as it lasts. And up to this point, tennis hasn’t been a huge part of it. Until Wednesday, they said, they hadn’t even picked up a racquet.
It’s understandable. Mike, after all, has a baby coming in the next few days. Bob, who lives in Florida, drove to Camarillo with his family after Indian Wells was canceled and ended up staying because his wife, Michelle, began experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and went into self-isolation. By the time she got better — only to get notified more than a week later that her test was never processed — cross-country travel became a concern, so they ended up renting an AirBnB house.
Given those real-life concerns, there’s no need to sulk about missing out on tribute videos in Miami and Houston.
“I’m not bitter in any way that it’s not playing out like we wanted. Everyone’s in the same boat,” Bob said. “The pandemic has put a lot of things in perspective and given us a lot of time to reflect and work on relationships and get our life organized. As Mike said, it’s nice to slow down for a second, take a deep breath and reset. So in my mind and Mike’s mind too, it’s a very a positive time for us, and that’s how we’re trying to look at it.”
Nevertheless, the Bryan Brothers are icons of American tennis and deserve a send-off fitting of their accomplishments: NCAA champions at Stanford, Davis Cup champions, jointly ranked No. 1 for 438 weeks, winners of another 11 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles between them.
And perhaps they’ll get that chance at the U.S. Open and have the advantage of being healthy and rested, which isn’t as easy as it used to be.
“It’s very hard to really plan things out not having a goal in sight,” Bob Bryan said. “At 41 years old we know how to hit the ball and it’s only going to take us a few weeks to get back up to speed so you won’t see us going around changing strokes or hitting a ton of balls during this period. But we’ll be able to turn it back on.”
One more time, hopefully, before they turn it off for good.