Unlocking the secrets

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WE HAVE just about seen it all, from Tarango's tantrum to Henman's henpeck, yet there is a corner of Wimbledon that remains forever All England. Buckingham Palace and the Kremlin may have opened their doors to the public, but not the men's locker room. "Little snippets about what goes on in there get out," Peter McNamara said, "but never the whole story." So last Tuesday, when the news broke about Patrick Rafter and Todd Woodbridge almost coming to blows in after a doubles match, it seemed that the lid had finally come off this secret world.

The showdown by the showers, however, was hardly the Thriller in Manila and it was by no means the first time that heated words had disturbed the sanctuary under Centre Court. "I can't help but recall, in the week of his death," said Ken Rosewall, "that Pancho Gonzales himself was quite a fiery one in the locker-room." Any particular incidents? "None to be published." Surely Eddie Hewitt, a long-time fixture as chief locker- room steward, would have many tales to tell. Eddie Hewitt, it turns out, is not allowed to talk to the press. But he is a great favourite with the players, and, as he is retiring after this Wimbledon, a leaving card is at present being passed around and signed by the competitors.

The British player Mark Petchey explained that the locker-room acts as a sanctuary. "It's social place, where you can get away from the crowds. Some guys will spend hours in there." And the humour can be unforgiving: when Petchey arrived at Wimbledon two weeks ago, he found an embarrassing glamour shot of himself had been ripped out of a magazine and stuck up on his locker for all to see.

The banter, though, will normally take place in front of the locker-room televisions where players congregate if an upset is on (Agassi v Wheaton, Courier v Norman, Tarango v officialdom), though if short on light relief they switch over to a women's match. While Graf and Novotna were locked in combat on Thursday, someone suggested that this wasn't actually bad stuff. "OK, but can you possibly name one other half-decent women's match?" came the reply.

Chief jesters in the locker-room tend to be the veterans - Ilie Nastase, Brad Gilbert, John Fitzgerald - yet there was one occasion, in the early Eighties, when the practical joking went a little far. A certain player was due to to go out on to Court One but when he went to his locker, he found that his rackets had all been hidden. There was no punchline to the joke and eventually he was forced to borrow. So who was the joker? "His name," said McNamara, "will never get out of the locker-room. But suffice to say that the poor victim, whose name shall also remain secret, was looking for a pair of brown shorts."

WHILE the players do the business on court, their agents have, as ever, been doing the business off it. Best deal of the fortnight so far comes from Ilie Nastase's agents who have agreed a new Nastase clothing range with Adidas which is worth over $50,000 to the player (testament to the rising appeal of the seniors tour). Those generally in demand at the Wimbledon trade show are the players who manage to raise their profiles - Jacco Eltingh, Shuzo Matsuoka (great victory dance after his fourth-round win, just the sort of thing that attracts endorsements) - though Greg Rusedski has been leading the way. Not a single day has gone past without a new manufacturer ringing in to suggest that the face to sell their product is that of the new ever-smiling Brit.

Incredible string man

AT around 10.30 this morning, a house a deep lob away from Centre Court will have Pete Sampras knocking on the door. He will be answered by Jean-Claude Boldini, a Frenchman, who will have been up early, stringing Sampras's five rackets for the final. Boldini has been stringing Sampras's rackets for six years, but he won't follow him down to Centre Court this afternoon. "I am too much of an emotional man," he said. "I get too excited, shout and scream too much." Pointing to the television, he said: "I'll watch it on that."

In any case, Boldini might have divided loyalties. He used to string Becker's rackets, and Boris is still one of his favourite players. Sampras's semi-final was not easy viewing either, as Boldini also strings for Goran Ivanisevic, his opponent in that game. In fact, Boldini strings for almost everyone: McEnroe, Connors, Lendl, Edberg and Stich have all come knocking on his door on the mornings of Wimbledon finals past.

It all makes for a lot of cow gut. "No sheep gut any more. No cat gut, no bears, no birds," Boldini explains. Which also makes for a lot of cows: two and a half per racket, making a total of 12 and a half cows going on court with Sampras today.

THE following comment, from Richard Jelfs, of Banbury, appeared in the visitors' book of the Wimbledon museum last week: "Should have more about the junior girls doubles 1994 winners." A bizarre specialist interest? One of the junior girls doubles winners of 1994, it turns out, was a certain Miss E Jelfs. Coincidentally, she also comes from Banbury.