At the start of the Wimbledon fortnight, the 256 men’s and women’s singles players are crammed into the locker rooms that extend deep under the All England Club’s SW19 headquarters.
But as every round goes by, the hallowed sanctuaries, far from the pulsating crowds, begin to empty.
By the time the finalists walk out onto Centre Court this weekend, the luxurious complex will be almost deserted. And while most sports involve separate dressing rooms for competing teams, at Wimbledon you can be pulling on your whites just a few feet from the man or woman who stands between you and the trophy.
“It has a very different atmosphere,” says Tim Henman, the four-time British semi-finalist. Monica Seles, who reached the women’s final in 1992, agrees. “Just the last two players are left,” she says.
“It’s hard not to talk to your competition, but you can’t be too friendly, otherwise you won’t be able to harness the do-or-die instinct you may need later on the court.”
Unlike most venues around the world, Wimbledon has a tiered series of dressing rooms, with spaces reserved for the top seeds. The room for the best female players is internationally renowned.
“It is probably the most beautiful locker room in the world,” says Annabel Croft, the former British women’s number one. “They have sofas, magazines, attendants to run your bath for you. It’s a whole level of service you can’t imagine.”
In fact, Seles says she initially thought she’d taken a wrong turn. “It looked more like Buckingham Palace than a tournament site. Silver trays and china were laid out in perfect alignment on tables, and a stunning display of food was right in the middle of the room.
“It was the fanciest thing I’d ever seen. It was like I’d stumbled back in time to a tea party in Victorian England.”
The men’s complex, on the other hand, is more functional. Andrew Castle, the former British number one, describes how the doors of the wooden lockers “fold down to make a little table”. Henman recalls passing the time between rain breaks with impromptu sporting events
“There was a cricket bat in there. Now they have a few putting holes and golf balls you can play with. There’s a mini basketball hoop that gets quite a lot of use. We used to play backgammon, there were cards. Anything to pass the time if you’re waiting for a match.”
Castle, who still has a locker, picks out the showers as a highlight. “They are well known as the greatest showers in the world. Massive glass door, individual cubicles, shower head like a dustbin lid, and the flow through the shower – without wishing to get too technical – I reckon it empties an Olympic-sized swimming pool on your head every minute.”
Despite the players battling fiercely on court, back in their sanctum, calm is restored. “A lot of people would be surprised by how relaxed the atmosphere is,” says Henman. “That’s something you’ve always been accustomed to; we shared locker rooms week in, week out.”
Despite the occasional report of bust-ups between players, there is a general code of omerta within the four walls of the locker room.
Castle says: “It’s one of the few places where you can get real privacy. If anything came out and hit a diary column, then that would be totally against the rules.”
Henman adds: “The one place you can’t see is the locker room, so it has an aura. It’s the inner sanctum, and I think that’s important to maintain a certain mystique of Wimbledon.”