Locker room confidential: It's Maria Sharapova's 'least favorite place in the world'

    Story highlights

    • "Right now, Nadal has a huge amount of locker room power"
    • Tennis one of few sports where players share same dressing room

    (CNN)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.
      Maria Sharapova during her first match in 15 months in Stuttgart, Germany in April.
      "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.
      "I can tell you that Steffi Graf and her locker room demeanor is not unlike what I think Maria Sharapova's is like," Shriver, an ESPN broadcaster who won 20 major doubles titles with Martina Navratilova between 1978 and 1997, told CNN Sport.
      "Which is to keep a very strong, isolated boundary and you are just in your own preparation, you are in your own world and you don't really need anybody to prepare other than your team."
      "Even Chris Evert for a while really felt like she needed to isolate in order to get the best out of herself," Shriver added.
      It's not just the women who struggle with the boundaries of friendships in the locker room.
      Top-ranked Andy Murray and second-ranked Novak Djokovic were firm friends when they played each other in the juniors but put their friendship on hold when they started to contend for titles on the men's tour.

      Pecking order

      Although the French Open locker rooms are luxurious with comfortable couches and wooden lockers, nothing beats Wimbledon, where attendants draw players an ice bath to aid recovery or a warm bath to relax in one of its marble tubs and even serve tea and biscuits.
      The bigger the star, the more privileges they get when it comes to locker room perks, according to Parmar.
      "The locker room attendants are the same people each year and once a player has a locker they then try and give those players that same locker each year," said Parmar.
      To mark the retirement of 22-time major winner Graf, French Open organizers engraved her playing record on the door of her locker, No.19, and gave it to the German as a gift.
      "And to illustrate just how irreplaceable Graf is, the tournament locker room now has an 18b, but no No.19..." Roland Garros said on its website.
      Although the French Open has two locker rooms, one at the main Court Philippe Chatrier and one at the Court Suzanne Lenglen, its second showcourt, nowhere is the pecking order between the sport's superstars and its journeymen more clear than at Wimbledon.
      The All England Club has a separate locker room inside Centre Court for the top 16 seeds and what is called the North and South men's dressing rooms for the other players.
      "That main locker room was a lot smaller and lot more intimate, but you really got the sense it was a special club to be part of," said Parmar.
      In 2001, the North and South locker room was being used by eventual champion Goran Ivanisevic, who had slumped so much in the rankings he needed a wildcard to enter the main draw.
      As he advanced through the tournament, Ivanisevic was offered an upgrade to the top 16 locker room. He refused.
      "He didn't want to change the routine," Parmar said. "Whenever he played, there was an amazing buzz up in our locker room. Everyone would be watching his matches and we almost thought he was one of us."

      Practical jokes

      Although most players are creatures of habit and the locker room is a den of superstitions, there is also time for humor.
      One of the biggest practical jokers on the men's tour was the now retired Frenchman Michael Llodra, who once hid naked in the locker of Ivan Ljubicic in Miami in the hope that some of the Croat's good form would rub off on him.
      "These lockers in Miami aren't that big, but he climbed in there and the guy opened his locker, and he was there, cramped," Parmar said. "It was just comical."
      "Even with all the rivalries, you're one big family, because you do see each other week in, week out," Parmar said.