For many youngsters, it’s their dream come true to become a ball boy or ball girl at a major tennis tournament such as Wimbledon. Standing on the Centre Court and mingling with the world’s top players may seem like more of a pleasure – but it’s much harder work than you would imagine!
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At first, it was only boys who were recruited for Wimbledon in the 1920s, when they came from the Shaftesbury Homes – a training institution for the Royal Navy. Between 1946 and 1966, the ball boys came from Dr Barnardo’s Goldings School. The first ball girls were introduced at Wimbledon in 1977. Mixed teams of ball boys and girls didn’t feature until 1980.
How do you become a ball kid?
Known by the abbreviation “BBGs”, the youngsters are chosen for Wimbledon from local schools. They follow a strict recruitment and training programme over a period of several months. Like the players, only the best and fittest make it to the world’s most famous tennis championship.
Chosen from year nine and ten students, from a number of south-west London schools, the average age of a ball kid is 15. An initial 700 applicants are shortlisted to 250. Around 90 return from the previous year and the remainder come in fresh from schools.
A written and skills test is completed to demonstrate their coordination and ability to throw. They also have to show they can stand perfectly still for long periods of time. Those who don’t make grade are dropped along the way, until only the very best remain.
What’s the training like?
Rigorous tests for the Wimbledon ball boys and girls are said to be tougher than the regime for the US, French and Australian Open championships. The job must be done with speed and efficiency, so the training sessions begin in February – youngsters train at Wimbledon for two-and-a-half hours per week and this increases as the tournament approaches.
Practicing general fitness training and feeding the ball seamlessly to the players, they learn how to dispatch a ball from one side of the court to the other, without moving from their spot. They must learn to work quickly, efficiently and quietly, without distracting the players or causing a fuss.
How many ball kids are on each court?
Ball boys and girls usually spend one hour on court and an hour off during an average day. They are split into teams of six and the four best teams work on Centre Court and No 1 Court, where the top action happens.
The next tier of high-profile courts are handled by six more top-class teams. The rest of the ball kids are rotated around the remainder of the courts. They are often not paid for their services, although at most tournaments, they are given their uniform to keep after the event.
The US Open is the only major championship where ball kids are paid an hourly rate, which is roughly minimum wage. At Wimbledon, they receive a one-off stipend of around £200 for the whole tournament.
Their main job is to retrieve and provide balls, making sure the players have a constant supply, but they also have other responsibilities, often dependent on who is playing on the court. They also hand out towels to the players between points.
Sometimes, the ball kids have to deal with the players’ strange requests. Tournament organisers have a list of players who have specific quirks and usually expect the ball kids to adapt. For example, German player Dustin Brown is known to ask for the same ball again if he has just won a point with it.
Some players push their luck too far and incur the wrath of the umpire – for example, French player Elliot Benchetrit was playing at the 2020 Australian Open in January, when he asked a ball girl to peel a banana for him during a break.
Umpire John Blom took exception to his demand and told him to do it himself, as it wasn’t the girl’s job! Afterwards, Benchetrit received criticism on social media for his actions, but claimed the reason he had asked her to help was because he had cream on his hands.
Rafa Nadal once gave a ball boy the wrapper from his energy bar and told him to put it in the nearby bin, instead of doing it himself! On the whole, Nadal has always been pleasant to the ball kids. He was genuinely concerned at this year’s Australian Open, when he accidentally struck a ball girl in the face with a wayward return shot during his match against Federico Delbonis.
Visibly shocked, Nadal ran straight over to make sure she was okay. She assured him that she was, so the superstar player apologised and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He afterwards described her as a “super-brave girl”, as she didn’t make a fuss.
Have any famous players been ball kids?
One of the greatest players of all time, Roger Federer, was once a ball boy. In fact, famous footage of the Swiss superstar when he was a ball boy in 1993 shows him looking thrilled at receiving his medal at the end of the Swiss Indoors tournament in Basel.
Twelve at the time, he was caught on film being presented with his ball boy’s medal following the men’s singles final between Stefan Edberg and tournament champion Michael Stich. Federer champions ball kids and often speaks out about how they should be given more respect for the important role they play.
Britain’s Andy Murray has also called for greater respect for ball kids following an incident at the Shenzhen Open in 2018, when Fernando Verdasco allegedly shouted at a ball boy due to a delay in getting his towel between points. Later, Murray responded angrily, “What about a rule that makes players get their own towels?”
I think it’s fair to say, without the dedicated and hard-working ball kids, the tennis championships that we know and love would be a whole different ball game!
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