Today, Pat McEnroe, U.S. Davis Cup captain, ESPN color commentator, and author of Hardcourt Confidential (with an assist from yours truly) is going to share some of his thoughts and experiences in that Inner Sanctum, the ATP locker room. This passage is preceded by a lengthy one on Jimmy Connors (if you remember, Connors' storied run in 1991 began with a remarkable comeback win over Patrick), which is why the material below begins with him.
Jimmy was adept at mind games. He was so keen to keep himself distant from the pack that he would often avoid the locker room altogether, changing and killing time conspicuously apart from his peers. Top players often have what you might call a “locker room strategy,” from aggressively dominating the inner sanctum of the athlete to avoiding it altogether. One of my brother John’s big beefs was that tennis is the only sport where you share the locker room with not just the guy you’re going to engage in intense, one- on- onecombat, but also with someone to whom you might have a deep,genuine aversion. I guess golf is the same way— but then it’s a stretch to call golf a sport.
John disliked Ivan Lendl, and you could feel the tension when they had to inhabit the same locker room. Granted, John liked to strut around, scowling, his body language demanding that you give him wide berth. That could be intimidating. But he didn’t engage guys in the same way as Lendl, who actually talked trash and needled people— sometimes mercilessly. When John Fitzgerald (who was actually a friend of Lendl’s) came into the Australian Open locker room shortly after having his first child, a daughter, Lendl said in his mechanical, clipped Eastern European accent: “Congratulations, John. Maybe next time you vill be man enough to make a son.”
In conclusive proof that there is a God, Lendl ended up having five children of his own— all lovely daughters.
I watched as Brad Gilbert and Ivan Lendl almost came to blows in the locker room in Tokyo one year. Now a lot of guys found Brad’s endless prattling (usually about sports) irritating. But even more glowered at the way Ivan Lendl was constantly razzing and putting others down.
Somehow, the two of them got started on a game of one- upmanship. Brad suggested that he would clean Ivan’s clock in a game of one-on-one basketball. Not to be outdone, Lendl said he could skate rings around Brad in a hockey rink.
“Oh, yeah,” Brad shot back, sticking out that Sgt. Rock jaw of his, “You want a piece of me in a batting cage?”
I could hardly believe my ears, these guys were taking it to another level, like a couple of kids in the schoolyard, until some other players intervened to talk both guys off the ledge before it came to fisticuffs. It was idiotic; clearly, it had nothing to do with either guys’s skill at bowling or beer pong. They just had their backs up and neither was going to back down.
Wimbledon has two locker rooms, a spacious, well- appointed one for seeded players, and a more bare bones one for everyone else.Yet, Andy Roddick, a three-time finalist at the event, insists on
hanging out in the B locker room, so he can be with buddies like Sam Querrey, the Bryan Brothers, Mardy Fish, and James Blake. He just feels more comfortable in there.
Of course, you can’t have individual locker rooms for all 128 players at a major. But at those events, as well as smaller ones, the locker room during the early stages of an event is like a cross between a crowded train station at rush hour and a class reunion. The camaraderie level is high. When whoever won the last tournament walks in, almost everyone slaps him on the back or drops by in front of his locker to say “Well done.”Friends who haven’t seen each other in weeks say hi and catch up when they meet. At the 2009 US Open, Roger Federer watched the scoreboard as Marsel Ilhan, the first Turkish player (although he’s originally from Uzbekistan) to compete at an Open-era major, won his first- round match. Later, Federer went up to Ilhan in the locker room to congratulate the young player and introduce himself. The journeyman couldn’t believe it.
Carl, the locker room attendant at the US Open, doles out the assignments at the start of the tournament. Over time, he knows which guys like to be near each other, and he generally groups them by nations. It works out well, although the tone in the temple of Ben- Gay changes dramatically later in the event. When it’s down to the finals, the atmosphere in the locker room is almost oppressive.
You’ve got one guy huddled with his team in one corner, his opponent and friends in the other. The tones are hushed. You can almost cut the tension with a knife. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea for tournaments to give the finalists different spaces on that last, critical day. Roger Federer is probably the most relaxed guy I’ve ever seen in the locker room; he’s nothing less than a prince— it’s like he owns the place, but in a good way, like the proud proprietor of a Swiss fondue restaurant.
Rafael Nadal, as nice a kid and good a sportsman as he is, gets into the mind games a bit, wittingly or not. He makes his opponents wait on him, not just between points (for which he gets criticized) but in the locker room and on the sidelines as well. When the tournament officials call Nadal’s match, he goes to take another piss, making his opponent stand there, waiting. When the umpire calls them out to the center of the court for the coin toss, Rafa will often stay in his chair, fiddling with towels or his bottles while the other guy walks right out— and has to wait.
I can understand how Toni Nadal, Rafa’s coach and uncle, tried to drill it into the young, impressionable eighteen- year old of a few years ago that it was important for him to take his time, not feel rushed or obligated to do anything until he was comfortable and well- organized. But you have to grow out of that.
Rafa’s foot- dragging was behind that bad- blood incident at Wimbledon between Rafa and the Swedish player Robin Soderling. Ticked off by the way Rafa had the habit of making an opponent wait, Soderling did some conspicuous stalling of his own, and he even mimicked Rafa’s compulsive habit of plucking at the back of his shorts. It wasn’t a smart thing for Soderling to do, and it didn’t make his life any easier— Rafa is genuinely liked and respected by everyone. Soderling ultimately was cast as a boorish gamesman, but many players felt that his was a point worth making, if not exactly in the way Robin chose.