Wimbledon‘s ball boys and girls might just be teenagers, but like the athletes they assist, they’re the best in the world at what they do.
Even other elites at the French, US and Australian Opens look at Wimbledon’s ball crew in awe.
Known as “BBGs” for short, they are chosen from schools close to Wimbledon after a rigorous training and selection programme that lasts months.
At the end of it, they are expected to be seamless on the court – and to be able to put up with standing still for hours.
Who can be a ball boy or ball girl?
Ball boys and girls are selected from the ranks of year 9 and year 10 students from a number of schools that work with Wimbledon. Their average age is 15.
The schools are near the venue, in south-west London, so if you live further afield, your hopes might be dashed.
Around 700 people apply each year before being whittled down to 250 – with 160 coming in fresh from schools and around 90 selected from the previous year’s participants.
There is a written test, followed by a skills test – showing coordination and throwing ability – and a standing-still test (really) to find the best of the best.
It’s truly selective, with those who show potential but can’t quite reach the standard not able to continue.
“We don’t lose them for the sake of it, but we lose them if they don’t meet the standard,” Sarah Goldson, a PE teacher who heads up the training, told the Press Association.
Do they have to train?
They do. It’s not easy to do the job with speed and efficiency and without getting in the way of an elite athlete at one of the most important events of the year.
Sessions begin in February, fortnightly, and ramp up as the tournament approaches. After Easter, ball boys and girls attend 2.5 hour sessions weekly in Wimbledon itself.
Training is reputedly quite tough, with general fitness training involved on top of practicing “feeding” skills (tossing the ball seamlessly to the players when they need them) and more.
Ball-rolling is another necessary skill, involving dispatching a ball from a BBG on one side of the court to a waiting BBG on the other without either of them having to move.
The Canadian website Sportsnet reported on the moment the prospective ball boys and girls were granted their white shoes for the courts – and warned not to wear them outside.
“I am excited,” prospective ballgirl No. 98 told them. “It’s a big deal. The shoes are one of the only rewards we get here. But we’re not really meant to show any excitement.”
How hard do they work?
For the most part, they do one hour on court and one hour off for the duration of the day’s play.
The best ball boys and girls make up the four teams of six responsible for Centre and No 1 Courts, where the most high profile action happens.
Six more teams take the next tier of important courts, while the rest rotate around the remainder of the courts.
Do they have to deal with the players’ strange requests?
Their primary job is to retrieve and provide balls, but there is a certain amount of pressure to ensure everything is perfect for the elites of world tennis.
“We do have a list of who does what on court, but sometimes those things change and we expect the BBGs to adapt to that,” Goldson told the Telegraph last year.
Dustin Brown, for example, is known to ask for the same ball back if he has won a point with it. While Rafa Nadal presents a variety of unique challenges – including once handing a wrapper from an energy bar to a ball boy to place in a nearby bin instead of doing it himself.
A stepping stone to work
In the 1920s, the ball boys – all boys at that time – came from Shaftesbury Homes, a charity set up in the 19th century to support young people in care.
From 1946, for 20 years, all the ball boys for the Championships came from Dr Barnardo’s Goldings school in Hertfordshire. The competition was reportedly fierce, with a summer job at the prestigious tennis club being seen as a stepping stone to future work for the vulnerable 14- to 18-year-olds.
Wimbledon retains its relationship with Barnardo’s to this day.
When did they introduce ball girls?
The first girls took their stations on the courts in 1977, while mixed teams were introduced for the first time in 1980.
They made their debut on Centre Court in 1985, a year Boris Becker and Martina Navratilova took home the men’s and women’s titles respectively.
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