It's a fiercely competitive field. Training is intense, and it involves jumps, sprints, cardio and optimal reflexes. The rules are rigid and attention to detail is absolutely crucial. Applicants train for hours on end and despite the rigorous official training, participation is not guaranteed. This might sound like the rules for training in professional sport — but this is only a small part of the life of a ball boy or girl, or a "BBG", as they are commonly known.
Today, ball boys and girls vie for the opportunity to be alongside the biggest players in the game. It's an arduous selection process, especially at the Grand Slam level: about 700 applications come through each year for Wimbledon alone. Of these, only 250 — or approximately 36 percent — make the cut. Of those 250 spots, 90 are reserved for the ball boys and girls of the previous year's tournament narrowing down the pool even further.
Ball girls were a relatively recent addition to the pool — it has been just over 40 years since females were 'allowed' to be in this role. Quite a small drop if you consider the past of Wimbledon and indeed, tennis overall.
But it wasn't always so competitive — there is an interesting past to ball kids, especially at Wimbledon. In the early 20th century, they were chosen from among children at Shaftesbury Homes and Barnardo’s, both well-known children's homes for orphans that are still operational to this day.
Today, however, play has been marred by the fact that ball kids are often treated quite shabbily, with a number of players near the top ordering them around, essentially treating them as indentured servants for the duration of their time on court.
Case in point Fernando Verdasco, who is on video berating a ball-boy at the recently-concluded Shenzhen Open for "not bringing him his towel fast enough." The boy's face falls quickly, and Verdasco is seen on video making a patronising gesture at him.
— doublefault28 (@doublefault28) September 29, 2018
Verdasco was roundly slammed for his behaviour and was met with criticism from, among others, Roger Federer, former England captain Anne Keothavong and Judy Murray. Federer, speaking at the Shanghai Masters, said "… you don't want to have them leave feeling like, oh my god, like I was not appreciated or I was not liked or it was actually a horrible thing, you know? So yes, it needs to be taken care of." Judy Murray was more economical and forthcoming with her words, and spoke out candidly on Twitter soon after video footage of Verdasco emerged.
But the behaviour has far from ended. More recently, the Belarusian tennis player Aryna Sabalenka, playing at the China Open, shook her empty water-bottle at a ball boy, looking at him with derision before tossing the bottle on the floor. In contrast, Novak Djokovic, in 2015, apologised quickly to a ball girl after generally screaming in her direction — and only two days ago, Alexander Zverev apologised to a ball boy who was scared by what turned out to be a celebration for the young German.
But why are ball boys and girls so often on the receiving end of abuse, derision and general mistreatment by players on court? One former ball boy I spoke to theorizes that it might be pressure.
That "former ball boy" also happens to have represented India at Grand Slams, the Davis Cup and the Olympics, and is currently the coach of the Indian Davis Cup team — and the captain of the Fed Cup team — Zeeshan Ali.
Ali has a unique perspective on the issue for many reasons. Not only is he India's current Davis Cup coach, he has trained young tennis players for years and years — and 40 years ago, before he began his professional career, Ali was himself a ball boy — and worked on matches with former World No 1 Ivan Lendl.
"It should not be the ball kid's job to fetch the players' towels and items," Ali says. Of the fact that players often unleash their wrath on ball boys and girls, he tells me, insisting he does not want to excuse their behaviour. "It happens in the heat of the moment, sure. But the fact is that there is no rule that says you will be penalized, or given a warning, for shouting at a ball kid or unloading your anger on him or her. That rule definitely exists for adult officials, and talking back to a lines person, or a chair umpire would definitely get you a warning at bare minimum, as we have seen in the most recent Grand Slam." Ali is, of course, referring to the US Open women's singles final, which continues to be debated today.
"Unfortunately," Ali says, "ball kids are right there, front and centre, and they are an easy, soft target for players who are getting carried away in the heat of the moment." What players fail to realize, he says, is the magnitude of the impact a single tirade could have on a ball kid.
"What ends up happening, especially as a kid of that age, is that you are very impressionable. While good things stick with you, bad experiences do even more so, and if a player is disrespectful, and shouts at a child, disciplines him, watched by so many and even all over international media, it can definitely have a negative impact on the child. Maybe he or she might not want to play anymore, or if they idolise a specific player, an incident like this could mar their opinion of him or her significantly."
Ali himself has great memories of having been a ball boy. "My experience was nearly 40 years ago, being a ball boy for Ivan Lendl, and it was such an amazing experience, I still remember it to this day. You are 9, 10, 11 years old, it is an experience you look forward to every year. These players are people you idolise and want to be like. Being a ball boy is sort of like having the best seat in the house. You're watching these amazing players front and centre and for me, it was an out of the world experience and so vivid even today. When that player you idolize, maybe even the same player who inspired you to play tennis in the first place, behaves this way, it could definitely put a child off wanting to even play anymore."
Of course, it is not all bad — some players go out of their way to care for ball kids, and indeed at the Australian Open of 2016, French ace Jo-Wilfried Tsonga came to the rescue of a ball girl suffering under the extreme heat and carried her to the sick bay on court.
"The highest level of players, they'll often think twice before behaving this way," Ali says. "Most of them have been ball kids themselves and they know what it's like. It's not always a fun job, as people might want to believe. And it's not just sweat on the towels. Players often blow their noses into the towels, too. You don't always do it because it's fun. You do it because it's expected of you. That, and because you love the game.
"Would I want my own child to be a ball kid, the way they are treated today, to be carting off sweaty towels? I would not."
Pundits, rule makers and former players have recently suggested new rules that involved putting a towel rail at the back of each side of the court, which players could go to, towel off themselves, and return to play. A number of players, Roger Federer among them, suggested that this would waste a significant amount of time, with players going back and forth from the rail constantly impeding play. Federer was among a number of voices from the higher levels of tennis who suggested that this might mean "less tennis played and watched." That means for the foreseeable future, ball boys and ball girls will continue to be a part of the ecosystem.
Ali suggests that the reality is quite the opposite. "Do you really need to towel off after you’ve received a double fault? No rally, nothing, or a single return? But that is what has been happening of late. Whether it has been a 2-ball rally or a 15-ball one, players these days seem to insist on increasingly frequent towel offs. It can get absolutely ridiculous."
He says that shifting the onus to players will in fact cut down on the overall time spent on towelling off. "If players have to go fetch their own towels, or walk to a towel rail, they will do it far less," he says. "That means that the time they suggest would be wasted would in fact be saved. That means more tennis is played — and the sport becomes more spectator friendly." Quite the opposite of what players — among them Fernando Verdasco, who was recently involved in an incident of this kind, have suggested.
"That's what we did when we played," Ali says. "We've played at the Olympics and in Grand Slams. We placed our towels near the lines person, and if and when we needed to towel off, we did so and returned. The 30 seconds that we were given then was enough for that."
As a tennis professional with experience in playing, coaching — and working with ball kids, Ali says that players need to be more cognizant of their own on-court behaviour. "The ball kid is there to help, doing his or her own part for the game. All of these kids, in India, are children who are training at local academies in cities where the tournaments are hosted."
Heat of the moment or otherwise, perhaps players need to remember that between the sweat, the game, and the wild gesticulations of anger, there is a young child looking to play the sport that the players fell in love with, back when they were children themselves.
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Updated Date: Oct 19, 2018 16:10:40 IST