Inside the unusual locker room dynamics of pro tennis

Andrey Rublev warming up in the locker room before a match at the 2023 Laver Cup. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images for Laver Cup

Sloane Stephens still remembers what it was like walking into the locker room at some of her first tournaments on the WTA Tour. She was 16 when she made her main draw debut, and it was intimidating to be surrounded by so many women she had admired.

And now she would have to play them.

But what most stands out today when Stephens, now 31 and ranked No. 35, thinks about it, was just how quiet it was. There was no casual conversation. In fact, people rarely spoke at all. Not to her, nor to anyone. The top players didn't even glance in her direction.

It was an isolating and daunting place.

But, according to Stephens -- who lost in the first round of the French Open on Tuesday -- it's a dramatically different scene today. During the early rounds of the tournament -- in which there could be dozens of singles and doubles players at any given time -- the locker room will be buzzing with activity and conversation.

"Now we have full on [get-togethers] in the locker room," Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion, told ESPN. "We're like, 'What about this? Did you go to this place for dinner? Did you watch this show?' It's definitely more interactive, which is really nice. We travel so much and we're away from home and it can be hard. Your career can be really up and down, but it's sometimes the little interactions that mean so much. The camaraderie really matters."

Imagine if Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics had to prepare for an upcoming NBA Finals game with the Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic or Minnesota Timberwolves' Anthony Edwards just feet away doing the same. It might seem incomprehensible -- comical even -- especially when thinking about team sports. But in tennis, this is what happens every single week on tour. There is typically one locker room for the women and one for the men, and every player in the draw shares the space.

At Roland Garros, that means 128 players in each singles draw, with an additional 128 in the doubles draws and the addition of junior players during the second week. Players come in and out of the locker room before and after matches, as well as ahead of and following practice.

Every player is different in how much they like to interact, or not, with their peers.

"If I'm in the locker room and I have to go for the match, I don't really talk to anyone," Andrey Rublev, the current world No. 6, told ESPN. "If I'm in the locker room after practice and I know that now it's my free time, and there are some players that I know, we talk, we can laugh a bit. It's very easy for me to separate competing on the court against someone and being off the court with them. Even if something happened on the court [during a match with an opponent], I'm easy and don't take it personally. It doesn't change anything [in the locker room]."

Stephens added that there is an unspoken code to make sure it's quiet enough for players who are about to head out to a match.

"I think there's a very high level of respect when it comes to someone actually getting ready to play," Stephens said. "You're not going to bother them, you're not going to strike up a conversation. You're going to give them peace and energy they need."

Players who are set to play against each other rarely interact -- save for a simple greeting -- before a match, but it can be a different story after. Even, according to Danielle Collins, after a high-stakes match like a final. After winning the title at Charleston in April, Collins said her opponent Daria Kasatkina was not only happy for her in the locker room immediately after, but that they went out to dinner later to celebrate.

"Even though we're competing so hard against each other on court and leaving it all out there physically, emotionally, mentally, I can say the majority of the women on tour are able to kind of separate that," Collins, the world No. 10, shared with ESPN. "And then they're able to leave it all out on the court and be really awesome, amazing people when they come off the court and be people that you want to hang out with and be around and lean on for support."

But still, no matter how supportive it might be, for younger players -- much like for Stephens when she began on tour -- it can be overwhelming to see stars in the locker room for the first time, just getting dressed or listening to music. For Leylah Fernandez, now 21 and ranked No. 33, that exact scenario played out at the 2019 French Open.

She was still a junior when she walked into the locker room to find Serena Williams just steps away.

"I was just in awe of seeing a multiple Grand Slam champion and legend in front of me, beside me," Fernandez, who ultimately won the junior title at the event, told ESPN. "I had been watching her since I started playing tennis. I couldn't say anything. I think we had a brief eye contact moment, and that was pretty much it."

There are moments in which tempers flare in the locker room after tough matches. Following their heated quarterfinal clash at the 2022 French Open, Holger Rune claimed that Casper Ruud -- the winner of the match -- came up to him in the locker room and "shouted 'YEEEESSSS' right up in my face." Ruud's camp denied the allegations.

In Collins' experience, those types of moments are rare.

"Sometimes you can have a tough moment on court and you can bump heads or something can come up," Collins said. "Sure, it happens, but off the court, most people are cool and no grudges are held. People are pretty quick to move on from stuff and very laid back and eager to have those fun relationships away from the court."

Taylor Townsend, ranked No. 78 in singles and No. 12 in doubles, believes it was the pandemic that changed the locker room vibe to its current friendlier state.

"Before, I always felt like there was this sense in the locker room where it's just about me, we were all in our own worlds, in our own bubbles," Townsend, who reached the 2023 French Open doubles final with Fernandez, told ESPN. "No one would acknowledge one another, and even though it always felt very strange to me, I kind of adapted to it just to fit in. But I think after [the] COVID [suspension], it was like everyone valued relationships more because we went through a period of isolation. Now it's great to be able to have a laugh, a conversation, joke around and kind of ease the pressure a little bit."

Townsend referenced a recent tournament in which she had just come off the court into the locker room after a win and Madison Keys asked her for advice on how to wear her shirt -- tucked in or not -- ahead of her own match.

"There's a camaraderie for sure," Townsend added.

Stephens said the rise of social media has also allowed players to feel more connected to one another -- and that has translated to even greater support among the players when necessary. Explaining that there have been many times when a player's luggage has been lost while traveling to a tournament, Stephens said others always pitch in and lend their own clothes, sneakers and gear so the player can make it through the week.

The locker room has also become a place for candid conversations about day-to-day life on tour, as well as advice on different coaches, sponsors or anything else.

"It's a safe place to share information, and it's nice to be able to have an open dialogue," Stephens said. "I never want younger players to be scared or not feel like they can participate, so I always introduce myself whenever I see a new person or someone I've never seen before in the locker room. I know they're never going to come up to me."

With players traveling around the world for 10 months of the year and spending more time on the road than at home, it creates an unlikely bond. On the court, everyone wants to win. But off the court, there's an underlying understanding and connection. And what sometimes starts in the locker room can extend far beyond.

"If I'm at a tournament in a foreign country and something happened, the only people I know are going to be the people at the tournament," Stephens said. "I would trust a girl that I have been on the tour with for 10 years -- even if we've never spoken or just in passing in the locker room -- if I was in a pickle. I know she's going to have my back. We are all competitors, but at the end of the day, when something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us. We're always there for each other."