It happens every year. Tennis players, by the hundreds, disappear from Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
They arrive with hopes of remaining there at least two weeks, but every two days about half of them vanish until their ranks dwindle to a small, select handful. They walk the eerily quiet back halls, lounges and locker rooms of Arthur Ashe Stadium, tennis’ largest venue, nearly alone. The same phenomenon happens in London, Paris and Melbourne, Australia, each year, until eventually there are only two left to share a giant locker room, player restaurant and court.
Players like the Hall of Famer Chris Evert felt that blissful solitude 34 times in Grand Slam singles events, and won 18 of them. The goal is obviously to win their survivor game, but it is still a strange feeling.
“It’s lonely and there’s pressure knowing it means you’re last the two women standing,” Evert said, adding, “There are pleasantries and small talk. You don’t want them to see you’re nervous, but you are.”
When each of the four major tournaments begin, the many player areas are teeming with competitors, plus their coaches, agents, trainers, family members and hitting partners. It is difficult to get a table in the player restaurant. Preferred times for a practice court or session with the athletic trainer can be hard to come by. People are bumping into one another, stepping over equipment bags, waiting for someone to move so they can reach their locker.
“At the beginning, it’s very hectic,” said Andy Murray, who has played in 11 major finals and won three, including the U.S. Open in 2012. “There’s a lot of hustle and bustle.”
Even before the first day of the main draw, there are 128 women and 128 men competing in the qualifying rounds, while scores more show up to begin practicing. When the first Monday of the main draw finally hits, it’s a tennis circus. Each locker room at the U.S. Open has roughly 375 lockers, and in the early days all are in use.
Gradually, some of the qualifiers lose and leave, but their spaces are handed over to newly arriving doubles players. Each contestant is allowed one additional person in the locker room, and past champions get two, and sometimes three as the event proceeds.
“The first few days it’s crazy,” said Stan Wawrinka, who has reached four major finals and won three, including the 2016 U.S. Open. “The player restaurant is packed, you can’t find a table. It’s so noisy. I’m always trying to stay focused with my team and because of that, I don’t stay on site.”
Then the cull begins. After two days, half the singles players have been eliminated. Two days after that, the herd is halved again, and so on. The same happens with the doubles teams and wheelchair players (Juniors have a different locker room, but they and their family members are allowed in the common players areas and restaurants).
Day by day it gets quieter, until finally, after two weeks, there are just two left. Murray, like Evert, is a gregarious sort and enjoys the company of others. Roger Federer was known to be one of the livelier players in the locker room, too.
But the goal is to be the last one alive in this “Squid Game,” and sometimes the isolation adds to the pressure. Before his U.S. Open final against Novak Djokovic in 2012, Murray practiced with his team, but they left him alone in the locker room to go eat while he prepared for his match.
“It’s a huge locker room with no one else in there,” Murray recalled. “I remember feeling like I was incredibly nervous, and I wanted some company. At that time, I was still quite young, and I didn’t want to tell them I was nervous. I called my psychologist at the time, and she didn’t answer her phone. I felt really nervous just being in there on my own.”
It turned out fine, as Murray won his first major title, but the loneliness is something with which the best players must grapple. Those who revel in solitude, like Pete Sampras, thrived on it. In Steve Flink’s book, “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited,” Sampras said, “I loved it on the last week of Wimbledon when nobody was in the locker room. I am a lone wolf.”
Tracy Austin went 2-0 in U.S. Open finals, beating Evert in 1978 and Martina Navratilova in 1981, and said there was always cordiality in the locker room before and after matches.
She described the first week of a major tournament as draining, as much from navigating all the different people and chaotic scenes, as from playing the matches. To reach the end, and see all her colleagues disappear, was energizing.
“The solitude is great,” Austin said. “It means you made it to the end and you don’t have to deal with whether you are being social or not. All your energy is focused into your match.”
Every player handles it differently. Years ago, when there were fewer “teams” of coaches, agents, physios and advisers, players had more direct interaction, even when they were about to face one another. Evonne Goolagong Cawley sang in locker rooms before finals. Navratilova usually shared her food with Evert.
Such collegiality is unheard-of in hockey, football, soccer and other sports, where teams do not dress in the same locker rooms. Golfers do, but that sport is not defined by one-on-one competition, as tennis is. In the same room, tennis players see when their opponent stretches, where they get taped, what muscles they ask the trainer to focus on.
“You’re peripherally aware of your opponent and their moves getting ready for the match,” Evert said. “There’s definitely stress in the air and a finality of the moment. We are not one of many matches, we are the match. You are trying to not think about your opponent, but you wonder if they’re nervous, confident, relaxed.”
For many players, the end of the first week, when more than 100 players in each draw have been eliminated, marks a turning point. There are still enough people around to have some social interaction, but the throngs have subsided and there is space to think and work.
“The first week is the most stressful,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has played in two major singles finals. “My favorite period of the Grand Slam is when the second week kicks in and everything starts to mellow down and become much quieter and more human, in a way.”
Eric Butorac, a former tour professional, now works as a player liaison for the United States Tennis Association. He is in and out of the men’s locker room every day. He described how attendants hand out locker assignments, with preference to past champions, but they also tend to group countrymen together.
Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were in so many finals over the last 20 years that eventually the locker room would become their own.
“The Americans have this corner, the Spanish are here, the French are here,” Butorac said.
“You get toward the end of a tournament and it’s like, Novak is around the corner to the left, Rafa is always in the back right, Roger’s is the second from the end over here.”
The player restaurant, pulsating with activity in the first week, gradually thins until only the finalists and their teams remain. Nadal and Federer used to relax in the restaurant before finals, playing games with members of their teams, and people knew to give them space. Butorac has been there, too. He reached the men’s doubles final at the 2014 Australian Open, and also warmed up Federer before his semifinal with Nadal.
“Going into the restaurant was extremely lonely,” he said. “It was me, my one coach, my partner and his one coach. Federer was way down there and there were 30 empty tables between us. It was actually an eerily lonely feeling to be the last one standing. On TV it’s a big spectacle, but it has an odd feeling to it.”
At the U.S. Open, the player garden turns into a desolate patio. The five practice courts, which were overcrowded at the beginning of play, are mostly empty. During the men’s final — the last event of the tournament — the hallways are nearly empty, other than security personnel. The other courts on the grounds are vacant. Even with Ashe packed, it is still the smallest overall attendance of the event, as only a handful of fans watch the big screen from the courtyard.
“I love it,” said Daniil Medvedev, who won the U.S. Open in 2021 and has played in three other major finals. “That final Sunday is the best. It’s only you, his team and your team. I don’t feel lonely. If you want to win, you have to be alone at the end.”