As a kid growing up in Milford, Dave Marshall knew tennis was his thing.
The Milford High star was one of the best juniors in the Mid-Atlantic region, and went on to a legendary career at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, leading the team to a top national ranking and racking up a combined 250 singles and doubles victories by the time of his graduation in 1988.
Unlike many high-level players who burn out after so much time on the court, Marshall’s passion for tennis never ebbed: following college he made tennis his profession, serving as director of the expansive Sea Colony tennis center in Bethany, establishing his own elite training center in Lewes, coaching at his college alma mater and training some of the area’s strongest juniors over the last thirty years.
Along the way, Marshall himself won 15 United States Tennis Association national championships and was twice the country’s top-ranked men’s doubles player over the age of 45.
But Marshall’s greatest tennis success might arguably have come over the course of the last year, as he helped engineer the comeback of a legendary American player back to the very pinnacle of international achievement.
That player would be Mike Bryan, who, with his brother Bob, dominated the men’s doubles tour for nearly two decades, winning more titles than any other duo in the sport’s history. Marshall was brought on to help guide the pair in 2016 by their longtime coach Dave MacPherson, a friend and colleague who also coaches the top-ranked American John Isner.
Marshall did not join the Bryan Brother camp at the pinnacle of their success. The twins were nearing 40, an unheard-of age to compete on the pro tour, and injuries and family life were taking a toll on their performance, dropping them out of the top ten rankings for the first time since turning pro. More recently, Bob suffered an injury that has sidelining him from competitive play for the remainder of the year.
Yet in Bob’s absence, Mike only became more competitive. He set the goal of returning the number one ranking in doubles in 2018, and he turned to Marshall to help make it happen.
The results speak for themselves: Mike has rocketed back up to the top ranking, thanks to his coaches and new – temporary, of course until his brother returns to the court – partner Jack Sock, the heavy-forehand-hitting young American who teamed with Bryan to win Wimbledon in July.
“I was asked to help out about a year and a half ago, and I’ve been traveling with them just about full time since then,” Marshall explained, saying he’s on the road what amounts to 40-50 weeks a year.
“They’re the greatest of all time, so it’s easy to help them out,” he said, referring to the brothers. “They just need a little help here and there. We have a good, tight team – Bob, Mike, Mac (MacPherson) and me. It’s a good friendship and the four of us work well together, but Jack Sock has obviously been a great addition to the team while Bob’s been down.”
We met with Marshall and Mike Bryan courtside this week at the US Open where Bryan and Sock are aiming to win their second Grand Slam of the summer. The third-seeded team plays their second match of the tournament this afternoon (following Sock’s unfortunate loss in singles last night).
“Dave has been a huge help … he’s obviously a very intelligent coach, but he’s a great guy to have in the trenches before big matches, after tough losses,” said Bryan.
Commenting on the combination of chemistry and pure stamina required to endure the rigors of the international tennis tour, Bryan mentioned the importance of personal chemistry for the small teams that traipse the globe almost like a family throughout the year.
“It’s tough to travel with someone week in and week out – you really have to like the guy. Dave has become a great friend, kind of a mentor in everyday life, working with him has been a good learning experience,” said Bryan. “We love having Dave on the team. He’s been a huge key to us coming back and being number one.”
According to Marshall, the inspired addition of Sock to the Bryan camp this summer was driven by finding a partner in Bob’s absence who would complement Mike’s game but also be a good team fit.
“Jack is a talented, great young American player. We asked him because we’re close friends and he loves doubles,” Marshall said.
“We consider ourselves fortunate that Mike and Jack won Wimbledon. Mike saved some match points. That final could have gone either way. It was five all in the fifth.”
“Wimbledon was obviously a team effort,” Bryan reflected. “We’ve been working hard for the last year with Dave and wrote down our goals at the beginning of the year that we wanted to win a Slam again and get back to number one. It’s good to see that all the hard work we’ve done on the practice court, in the gym, behind the scenes, it’s all paid off in a big way.”
Marshall credits his Wilmington University MBA and doctorate, and a classic business SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis for putting the Bryans on a path back to the top.
“We took their strengths, their weaknesses, their barriers to success, and what they needed and their goals, and the results were very interesting,” he said. “Mike was very quantitative about what he wanted to do this year – 2018 – whereas Bob was very qualitative.”
“We wrote down all of our goals – coaching goals, players’ goals, we got everybody aligned on the same page, and we looked at what our barriers to success were, and we just threw them out of the way. They’re the greatest doubles team of all time, they’re Hall of Famers, we wanted to be there when they needed us. They called us, and we showed up.”
Mike Bryan says even at 40 he is looking ahead to playing with brother Bob again in next year’s Australian Open, the first major of 2019.
“We want him to come back for the Aussie Open. It’s just around the corner, just about four months away and he had a hip resurfacing. He’s going to be going into rehab and working hard and that would be a dream if we could play that first Grand Slam of 2019 together.”
For his part, Marshall, the boy from Milford, is enjoying an unforgettable moment of his long tennis career.
“We have a good time. We do a lot of fun stuff. But it’s not much different with those guys [the Bryans] than the friends I grew up with in Delaware, whether it be Oliver and Omar Sebastian, Andy Hocker, Chuck Herak or Brint Morrow – guys I competed against and became good friends with. Obviously, Mike and Bob are at a much higher level than I ever was. But I just try to pass along what knowledge I have, and they seem to listen, which is nice.”