Serving Up Style
Avid tennis fans may think they know the ins and outs of the U.S. Open, but what’s not visible on the grounds or broadcast on ESPN is the exclusive on-site beauty salon, which is open throughout the tournament. Located in a high-security area near the players’ gym, the space is a relaxing oasis where competitors can stop by for mani-pedis, foot massages, haircuts, and hairstyling. The space is run by Julien Farel, tennis fan and owner of an eponymous salon in midtown Manhattan. He pitched the idea to the United States Tennis Association after working at a similar pop-up salon at the French Open. August 26 marks both the first day of the tournament as well as the salon’s seventh year at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and Farel is still as excited about the partnership as he was on day one. “I feel it’s a special privilege, because it’s a really fun event with incredible athletes. Coming from a small village in France, I would never have thought that I would ever be able to meet [the players], forget about working with them! They’re real, they’re funny, they’re young, and they have all this energy. And they want to be stylish at the same time,” Farel says. While he loves bringing his skills to the players each season, some of the pros prefer to come to him. “[Rafael] Nadal will only come [to my salon]. I do his hair in private. He doesn’t pop up,” he says. Over the years, Farel has gone from being a fan of the Spanish star to also being a friend, and he says despite his success and fame, Nadal hasn’t changed one bit. Well, except for his hair. “I am the one who transformed his hair from long to short,” Farel says.
Senior beauty editor Amber Kallor and I paid a visit to the master stylist as he was prepping to kick off another year at the Open and road-tested two of the styles ourselves (seen above). Our braids survived a brisk walk down Fifth Avenue (that counts as exercise, right?), but they also felt secure enough to withstand a round with Serena Williams. Here, Farel divulges the details behind his winning looks:
How many people do you style during the U.S. Open?
We do about fifty people a day. There’s a huge turnover. There are [hundreds] of players at first. And the way we work is first come, first serve. You have [Novak] Djokovic walking in, and I’ll say, “Sit here, I’ll be right with you.” But they know I [treat them] the same. We’re pretty efficient in how we work. A lot of the women don’t get blow-drys so it’s pretty fast. A lot of them go to training or work out after. What they really want is a cut, unless they have a press event.
So you’re not necessarily styling them for the match?
For a match, we’ll do some braiding, but you’re not going to give them a glamour blow-out. Sometimes [Maria] Sharapova will swing by for a blow-dry because she has a press event and she’s not playing. Sometimes they come if they have fifteen minutes and they want a touch-up before a TV appearance. They come more than once a week. For the guys, they might have hair that’s falling, so you have to put in a couple of bobby pins, or you have to slick the hair and apply sun protection. That takes three minutes. Some of them come for pedicures because their feet hurt. There’s not a lot of makeup, but we do nails, haircuts, and styles. We don’t do nail art.
What’s your all-time favorite hair moment out of all of the U.S. Opens you’ve worked on?
I love this season’s braid. There was a fishtail that was really nice. [Jelena] Jankovic wore that [in 2009]. And we put color into it that matched her dress. That was our idea, of course. She plays tennis, we style.
Why do you think hair and beauty have become an important part of the game?
People want to look good across the board, no matter what they do. Athletes became celebrities and they became a billboard. They wear a brand and represent a brand, and hair is a part of the picture, especially when you just carry a tennis racket and wear a T-shirt and shorts. They want a cool haircut. They want to feel comfortable, but also look the best they can. Hair, in general, is the most incredible accessory you can get on someone.
How do you test the looks after you’ve developed them?
Go dance for ten minutes and see if it moves. When they go play tennis, they want to look good, but it has to stay. I use my Flexible Gel, but when they sweat, you have to make sure the hair is tight and locked enough with some bobby pins. There’s a way I put them in (by bending both prongs down toward the apex of the pin). It’s secure; you can’t take it out. It’s locked.
What was your inspiration for the three looks this season?
We do internal contests. We all meet, and there are ten hairdressers and we divide into three teams. We focus on what we’re going to do. All the stylists come with ideas, and you pick part of each and arrive to one final look, but it’s to see the creativity of people. It’s a way to motivate everybody. It’s the same thing as when we have a fashion show and they say, “These are the clothes, what are you going to do?” Then you pick and you show the different kinds of looks. It’s teamwork. It’s very important that everyone feels part of the team, and at the same time you get major creations.
How big is your team at the Open?
We have seven people all together, but only three hairdressers. We do hair for up to fifty players a day. The rest are manicures.
What makes the braid a must-try on the court for 2013?
We’ve done braids before, but this [season] I really liked it. For the Met Ball, I styled a couple of people [where I incorporated a plait into a] mohawk, and I thought it would be a great look for the U.S. Open, especially for [players] that have shorter hair or layered hair, because you can fit everything in and lock it. You get your inspiration everywhere, that’s the bottom line. From a picture, a movie, something vintage. It’s really nice when you work as a team and you have people who feel like there’s something to look forward to. It makes them feel like they’re not just machines.
Do you work with the Williams sisters?
No, they have their own stylists. They live in my building in New York, and we pitched them this year, and they said, “We have our own people.” You know, you can’t have everyone.
Well, styling a few hundred players over the course of a grand slam comes pretty close.
— Baze Mpinja
Photos from top: AFP/Getty Images; Courtesy of Julien Farel