"Right now, Nadal has a huge amount of locker room power"
Tennis one of few sports where players share same dressing room
Maria Sharapova once described the women’s locker room as “my least favorite place in the world.”
Sharapova, of course, won’t grace the clay courts of the French Open – the second grand slam of the season – this year after tournament organizers denied the Russian a wild card, but her blunt description gives an inkling of the tensions that arise within a space that is rarely talked about in any sport.
Yet what happens in the locker room, where access is restricted to players and coaches only and where the big stars vie for supremacy, is almost as important as what happens on court.
“There is such a thing as locker room power,” former British Davis Cup player Arvind Parmar told CNN Sport.
Players on a hot streak “can build a reputation amongst their peers that they’re a man in form,” said Parmar, who retired in 2006 after a decade on the men’s tour and now works as a coach and broadcaster.
Take Rafael Nadal, the odds-on favorite to win an unprecedented 10th French Open title after a 17-1 run on the red clay this spring in Europe. The aura is back.
“Right now he has a huge amount of locker room power in the fact that if you were drawn against him, he is already a break up in both sets,” said Parmar.
“It’s pretty intimidating knowing you’ve got to play one of the top guys who are in form like Nadal at the moment. Psychologically, there is a huge advantage to have,” he added.
Craig O’Shannessy was coaching at the French Open in 2013 when he was nearly run over in the locker room by a player sprinting past at full speed.
“If I had been walking out half a second earlier we would have had an awful collision, and I was a little angry,” said O’Shannessy, who is also the strategy expert for Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the men’s ATP World Tour.
“I was wondering who this guy was. And I look back and it was Rafael Nadal.”
The 31-year-old Spaniard’s pre-match routine includes a long series of rituals that include taking a freezing cold shower to invigorate himself before putting on his headphones while his trainer bandages his feet.
After putting grips on all six of rackets himself, Nadal will then wet his hair before putting on his bandana before using the cramped space of the locker room to do a series of short, violent bursts of exercise.
“It is very intimidating,” O’Shannessy said. “If you are an opponent of his, and seeing this pre-match ritual of maximum intensity, a lot of times the matches can be won or lost right there.”
As a coach, O’Shannessy would advise a player “to go somewhere else where he’s not. Go to another locker room. Don’t let that have an impact on you, don’t watch it.”
Perhaps the most gladiatorial of all individual sports besides boxing, tennis is unique in the way all players have to share the same facilities as their biggest rivals, even on finals day.
Given what’s at stake, you’d expect the locker room to be a place of heightened tension and anxiety where it’s hard to make friends.
“It’s tough for me to imagine being friendly and having a friendship with someone and then the next day going out on the court and trying to beat them,” Sharapova explained in an interview with US broadcaster Larry King in 2013. “I don’t think that’s fair.”
Although former world No. 3 Pam Shriver said she was “one of the more social, talkative players,” with lots of friends on tour, the American pointed out some of the great champions of the past also needed a bit of distance.