Strolling into Saturday morning ball kid training at the Aviation Club, I’m prepared to see children in tennis whites standing with their hands clasped neatly behind their backs. What I don’t expect is a mini-military boot camp, with the ‘officers’ (or tennis coaches) bellowing instructions to their charges.
‘Be ready! For goodness’ sake, look like you’re a ball kid!’, ‘Urgency! Come on! Show some speed! I do NOT, repeat DO NOT want to see a bouncing ball!’ Hm. This isn’t the walk in the park I had anticipated.
‘It looks easy on TV, but it’s not,’ says David Al Dughaither, one of 15 coaches charged with whipping the kids into shape. ‘It requires a lot of practice in ball-passing, as well as the ability to move fast on court and to recover quickly from a mistake. There’s a lot of pressure.’
As 14-year-old Neamah Hussain comes hurtling round the net and nearly loses her footing, David shouts, ‘Careful! Five million people will be watching on the telly and they’re going to see you fall over!’ Of course, ball kids should not fall over, and certainly not on TV. They should have excellent balance and be as fast as an Andy Roddick serve, and it goes without saying that catching the ball and rolling it in the right direction are mandatory skills.
‘You have to be able to run around and you must be physically fit,’ explains 14-year-old Vansh Dassani, a team captain who, like many of the kids, has done this job before. ‘You need to know the rules of tennis and be able to follow the scores. But most importantly, you must be able to stay focused.’
All 150 kids enduring the tough 14-session training programme play tennis themselves. Aged between 11 and 16, most train with the Clark Francis Tennis Academy, so they’re in pretty good shape and they certainly know their deuces from their double faults. Divided into teams of 11 or 12, they are put through a series of gruelling drills and mock matches before they’re deemed ‘match fit’. On tournament day, captains organise the group. There are two ball kids at the net – usually the most senior or experienced on the team because they get to see the most action and enjoy the privilege of fetching drinks for the players – plus four at the baseline, a less busy slot but with the added perk of handling towels dripping with celebrity sweat. Aside from one to work the scoreboard, the rest are subs, swapped in and out throughout the game. ‘Everyone gets their chance on court,’ says Vansh.
To avoid embarrassing mistakes, the kids must work together as a team. Hannah Godfrey, 12, reckons you almost have to read each other’s minds. ‘Eye contact is the most important thing. You have to be watching the ball guys all the time, but you also need to pay attention to what the players want from you.’
And you can forget getting star-struck or letting your mind – or fingers – wander. Divij Duggal, 12, gleefully recounts the story of one unlucky ball boy who was caught on camera picking his nose a few years ago. ‘He was on television and his picture was in the Gulf News. It was really funny but the coaches are always talking about him as an example of why you shouldn’t do something stupid on court,’ he says.
‘You can’t get distracted, you can’t clap, and you can’t look at anyone in the crowd,’ explains Neamah. ‘And if you wave to your mum or anything you’re in such big trouble.’
Friend or foe?
Being a ball kid sounds pretty tough, so why do they put themselves through it? Apart from the free kit and a chance to skip school, they love meeting their tennis idols, provided the stars of centre court are not sulking or in a bad mood. Here’s what they said about the top players:
Novak Djokovic: ‘He’s really funny when he does his impressions’
Roger Federer: ‘He’s always kind and I like how he plays’; ‘He really is a gentleman’
David Ferrer: ‘He gave me his racket. It was broken, but it was good of him to give it to me’
Ana Ivanovic: ‘She’s awesome’; ‘She’s really sporting and a really nice person’
Andy Murray: ‘He can be quite friendly’; ‘I don’t like his weird sideburns,’
Rafael Nadal: ‘He seems nice but he doesn’t say much’
Andy Roddick: ‘He’s horrible’; ‘He’s my favourite player’; ‘He’s really arrogant and shouts and sometimes swears. When he gets in a mood he’s really bad-tempered’
The Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships (www.barclaysdubaitennischampionships.com) run from February 15-21 (women) and February 23-28 (men). To sign your kids up for tennis lessons, contact CF Tennis on 04 282 4540, email firstname.lastname@example.org or check out www.esportsdubai.com