In the upcoming Australian Open, a battalion of 380 ball kids will be actively moving around the court dashing and bolting around the court to keep the match at the pace it deserves. If you can ever watch a tennis match in a fluent rhythm, then it is not merely because of the shots produced by the players while rallying. A lot of credit goes to those heroes who are active between two points – ball boys and ball girls. Such fluidic rhythm needs a lot of practice. Behind the scenes, these young individuals undergo vigorous tests, selections and training which is no less stricter than a military drill. Here is a brief summary of the life of a ball boy and a ball girl who toil much harder than what you can imagine.
Ball boys were introduced in 1920 during Wimbledon. These kids were chosen from Southwest London School and Shaftesbury Homes. These were not exactly kids but youngsters who were well past their puberty. In 1969 it was decided that teenagers will be used for the selection. Ball girls made their first appearance in 1977 at Wimbledon, but they made their mark on Center Court in 1985. Only US Open is the grand slam where the ball “kids” are can be aged above 40!
The basic idea behind the introduction of the ball boys and girls was to reduce the time between two points and keep the use of a selected number of tennis balls in rotation. The kids are placed at nets and behind the baseline towards the end corners of the court.
Before Wimbledon begins, nearly 1000 ball kids apply to try their luck at becoming the ball kids on the ever glorious Center Court ad to see their favourite players up close. These 1000 undergo a written test based on the sport wherein they have to secure at least 80 percent to be through.
“Its not an easy process and they have to be resilient and not take it personally”
A physical hustle the follows. The kids are then made to undergo various exercises like jogging on the spot, star jumps, squats, twists and lunges in the scorching London sun. This drill takes place for 6 months. Some get exhausted to the extent that they faint, get a stroke or can be worse. At the end of six months the ones selected have smiles, the rest are sad or may be in tears.
These kids also have to master the art of “feeding” the ball. There are two ways to feed the ball to the hungry racquet of the player. One arm holding the ball goes up in the air, an affirmative nod from the player, the ball is thrown such that it pitches once and lands right on the racket.The other method is when the ball kid takes all the three balls in on hand, goes up close the player, and just places those balls on the player’s racquet. The kids also need to be smart enough to judge the player’s preference of how the ball needs to be fed.
Apart from feeding, there is something known as “precision rolling.” This is when the kids are taught how to pass the ball to each other and is an essential part of rotating the balls in play. Besides, the art of rolling the ball on the lush green grass does not only add to the gentleness of the sport but also elevates the decorum and discipline of the sport.
“The training programme has to be tough because there’s a huge element of trust and we have to be sure they do their job without distracting the players.”
For other grand slams, there advertisements that go on air and applicants try their luck out accordingly. Standing straight, being sharp to collect the ball that is served at 200 km/hr, bringing the players’ towels and drinks whenever they need are some of the small but major things that matter. Hence, concentration, stamina, fitness are the three main factors that needs to be considered in a BBG, as they are also called.
On court these players apply all their training and they are constantly observed by their supervisors. These supervisors at the end of the match judge the group of six BBGs are given a score out of 5. The smallest error committed by them can affect their chances of being a BBG further in the tournament.
Being a BBG is definitely an honor considering the process that they go through. 14 hours of hard work on court is above appreciable. Those young kids aged as young as 10 and as old as 17 years have a glimmer of passion and curiosity in their eyes. Desperation to meet their favourite player, taking their autographs, an occasional click with a legend, a splendid single handed catch and an applause from the audience; being a BBG is a joyous thing. Little do the spectators and the viewers know, how much these kids sweat it out to achieve their little big joy of life.