Now that we won’t be having another World Series parade this fall, it’s worth noting how rare the personal connections are these days between professional athletes and their fans.
Good ones, I mean. Here in San Francisco, we know how support can drop as fast as Aubrey Huff’s batting average.
The boobirds are sitting in rows at Candlestick Park waiting for Alex Smith to fail. Barry Zito could only be considered a success now if he agreed to give back his salary.
Pressure and expectations don’t make for easy relationships. Fans are quick to react to bad behavior, as evidenced by Serena Williams’ latest run-in with an umpire at the U.S. Open and her subsequent meltdown. Roger Clemens was notoriously indifferent to crowds. Ron Artest didn’t just respond to fans — he beat them.
But even while pampered stars put themselves on pedestals of adoration, it’s nice to see those rare athletes who give time, money and most important, themselves, to people who come to watch them. And rarely is that trait exhibited with such openness and graciousness as with two brothers who are coming to the Bay Area next weekend.
Well, not just brothers — identical twins. Two men so close most people can’t recognize them until they hold their rackets, one in the left hand, the other in the right. That would be Bob and Mike Bryan, the greatest doubles team in the history of tennis, which is saying a lot, since those fuzzy balls have been batted around for more than 200 years.
The Bryan brothers are the headliners at the annual Esurance Tennis Classic held Saturday and Sunday at The Club at Harbor Point in Mill Valley, mixing with the likes of former great Tracy Austin and rising American star Sam Querrey. It’s a charity event like the ones they squeeze into their schedule between Grand Slams and Davis Cup, though they’ve never done one in Northern California before — surprising since they spent two formative years playing at Stanford while winning just about every collegiate crown in sight.
That was before their rise to the top — and by that I mean to a level never seen in the sport. The Bryan twins have been the No. 1 doubles team in the world for 240 weeks, have won 73 doubles titles, 11 Grand Slam events and have combined for 700 wins, raking in nearly $17 million in prize money in a little more than a decade.
But as any serious tennis follower will tell you, what they do differently from most star athletes is spend time with their fans. I’ve seen them hang out with the crowds, posing for pictures and signing autographs for more than an hour after a practice. They linger long after matches. No kids ever go home without a hat or a ball scribbled with their names.
“The truth is we enjoy it,” Bob told me from his new home outside of Miami. “When we were little, I remember getting Andre Agassi’s autograph six times, and I thought that if I ever got to that level, I’m going to do that every time.
“Think about a hockey player or a basketball star that blows off some kids. They’ll remember that all their lives. We were lucky that we had parents and coaches who instilled in us a desire to give back.”
True, they have more time than most. Doubles is a niche in a sport that focuses primarily on singles and marquee matchups. They don’t play five-set marathons. Their bodies aren’t prone to breaking down under the grind of one of sport’s longest seasons.
But it’s still high stress and requires hours of practice. They’ve been doing it since they were children. And at 34, they’re still as enthusiastic as their chest bumps can convey.
“We didn’t win the U.S. Open this time, but it’s probably been the best year of our careers,” Bob told me. “We have all the team records in our sport. I just got married and we’ve got a baby on the way. I love living in Florida.”
With his brother in California, there isn’t even separation anxiety? Not with three emails and four calls a day.
Fans love their play. They appreciate their loyalty even more.