The Wimbledon Hairdresser
Suzanne Strong has been trimming, shaping and styling the thatches of Wimbledon’s leading stars since 1982, from Chris Evert to Roger Federer.
To the right of Centre Court, just above the gangway which runs from the packed banks of Henman Hill down to Court 3 and beyond, lies the players' terrace. This is a no-access zone for fans. Journalists are allowed in for no more than 40 minutes a time — any longer and a beady-eyed official will be dispatched to escort you away — and approaching players for interviews is strictly prohibited.
A hive of chattering coaches and back-slapping camaraderie during the first week, the terrace feels eerily empty as Wimbledon nears its climax, with just a handful of players left in the tournament to fill its many facilities including a restaurant, gym, and hair salon.
Suzanne Strong, 59, has been trimming, shaping and styling the thatches of Wimbledon's leading stars since 1982. "The first big name player I had was probably Chris Evert or Sue Barker, I can't really remember but one of those two," she says.
Having clipped the locks of everyone from Evert and Martina Navratilova, to Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, Strong has developed a certain nonchalance when it comes to sporting royalty, something which comes with being in the business for over three decades.
"It's definitely a big thing to get to do this, it always has been," she says. "But I don't get nervous, I just see them as any other client. It's just nice to do something very different and get to meet lots of new people."
The quirks and eccentricities of the Championships are part of the essence of the tournament and the All England Club is more than happy to play up to them. In addition to Strong, the list of staff at Wimbledon also includes an official falconer (to take care of the pigeons which view Centre Court as an ideal feeding ground), and a ball distribution manager.
But no one rises to the prestigious heights of Wimbledon's official hairdresser without first earning their stripes along the way. Strong got her first job at the tournament almost by accident while working for a South London hair salon in the early 1980s that did a range of PR activities including contracts at various tennis and golf tournaments. Continuity is one of Wimbledon's staunchest hallmarks, so when she quit the salon some years later, the tournament elected to retain her.
"Things have changed a lot since 1982," she says. "When I first started, there were three ladies changing rooms and that's where we worked. One hairdresser in each one. But after a few years Wimbledon gave us a salon which allowed us to do the men's hair too."
But it's not just the facilities that have changed. The fashions and demands from the players have evolved drastically in the past 30 years from the free-flowing locks of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg to the impeccably maintained Lego hair of Novak Djokovic. Most tend to be far more conservative than their predecessors although one low-ranked Russian player once asked for one side to be dyed purple and the other green to fit with Wimbledon's official colours.
"The men's hair has definitely got so much shorter these days," Strong says. "As a result, the vast majority of our clients are actually the men. They'll come by in the first week, and if I don't trim enough off they'll be back again a week later if they're still in. With the ladies it's slightly different. When I began, players like Chris Evert used to like to have their hair plastered in place with lots of hairspray and setting lotion. Now you see for example Maria Sharapova and it's really natural. They just want their hair to be quite free flowing and not blow died, but definitely washed and conditioning as it's been exposed to so much sun. "
Strong and her team of seven estimate that they'll do more than 300 haircuts over the course of the fortnight, working out at around 30 a day. "Our record is around 37 in an hour between three of us," she says.
The first week is understandably the most frantic with the salon fully booked every single day. At Wimbledon, unlike the sport's other majors, the junior competitors are not afforded any of the same privileges as those in the main draw. Different locker rooms, different eating areas, and certainly no chance of a free haircut. "If they work their way up the rankings, then they can come and visit us," Strong smiles.
It means that week two is far more laid back with most players packing their bags and leaving for home as soon as they're knocked out. But ahead of finals weekend, Strong has one of her most important jobs of the tournament.
"We do the ball girls' hair as they have to form the guard of honour for the prize presentations to the men's and women's finalists," Strong says. "They're never allowed to have loose hair on court anyway but as there's a member of the royal family present so they all have to have French braids to keep it neat and tidy. We do this for around 30 girls."
Plus there's always the odd last minute trim for 'good luck.' Like most sportsmen, tennis players are notoriously superstitious and this isn't just limited to avoiding walking on the lines and eating the same meals for a fortnight. During Djokovic's 2012 run to the Wimbledon semi-finals, he visited the salon for a haircut every other day.
"Players tend to fall into two camps," Strong says. "They're either really superstitious or not at all. If they're playing well or if they feel they're on a run of good luck, they will come in come every day to keep the streak going. That's especially true with the ladies, if they've had a particular hairstyle for a match and they've then done well."
Strong has not had the pleasure of trimming all of Wimbledon's most famous quiffs. Andre Agassi, who revealed in his autobiography that he wore a wig for years after prematurely balding, never visited, while most of the British players including Andy Murray and Tim Henman have preferred to use tried and tested hairdressers near their homes. Murray in particular, is known for not cutting his hair while on a winning streak.
Her role has given Strong a rather different insight into the personalities of the players, which can be quite different from their on-court persona. While Federer and Nadal are quite quiet, Djokovic has tended to be chattier whenever he visits.
"It's a very different environment for them and when you're having your hair done, you're in a bit of a vulnerable position, so everyone tends to be extremely nice, extremely easy going," she says. "But you often don't hear too much from them as when they're there, they're relaxed and want to get away from the hubbub. They often don't want hold a long conversation so we just respect the fact they want a bit of peace and quiet."
Strong laughs when it's suggested that she's now part of the scenery at Wimbledon. "I think my favourite thing about it all is the atmosphere. Quite electric at times, especially if there's a British player playing. I'm definitely not planning on retiring anytime soon. It's become part of my life doing this every year."