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10 December 2023

Dubai girls, boys having a ball with speed @ 135mph [video]

By Ajanta Paul

When Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer fire up some perfect aces, clean backhands and wicked forehands, who pays any attention to a few kids running across the court.

But, they are the nuts and bolts of a well-oiled machine who keep the play going on a tennis court.

For a spectator, the job of a ball boy or girl (BBG) may seem easy, but little do we know of the rigorous training they undergo - of fitness, self-discipline, attentiveness, agility and mental toughness.

Video courtesy: Ajanta Paul

Paul Espie, Director of Tennis from CF Tennis Academy, says, "Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships ball boys and girls go through a highly competitive selection process, long before they stride on to court.

"We put the teenage ball-keepers through their paces months in advance of the tournament to ensure that when the top players are on court, they know that the balls are in safe hands."

Pic: Ashok Verma

During a road show conducted by the Academy in September/October, almost 300 children from about 15 to 20 schools had applied.

Paul says, "After an intensive training programme for 16 weeks by about 30 coaches, we picked 120 most deserving kids, who are tough mentally and physically."

Video courtesy: Ajanta Paul

Mentally, a ball boy/girl must be sharp, to be able to react when a ball comes their way at 135mph; they have to know where they're supposed to be on the court and which direction to run.

Some will stand at the back, gathering up the winning shots, and bouncing the balls to the serving players - height required. Some will be in the centre. They crouch at the net, and scamper across collecting netted shots, darting their way before it slams down again - pace required.

Pic: Ajanta Paul

The supply chain (or feeding) - standing stock still, your arm snapped skyward, ball in hand, ready to bounce on to their waiting racquets.

Entering, exiting or rain suspension has protocol for these BBGs. They are required to march on the court in complete unison.

The cry of ‘new balls please’ sets in motion an almost complex process merely to retrieve six new tennis balls from a bucket.

Pic: Ajanta Paul

A team of 10 ball kids are picked up for each match. One cannot be a ball kid alone for a match and so being a team player is essential.

A team comprises a captain and a vice-captain along with other members that further help these boys and girls attain leadership quality.

Rolling the ball is important; running, handing towels, holding umbrella and even the seemingly simple task of standing still are all part of their training regime.

Pic: Ajanta Paul

In his second year as a ball boy, 13-year-old Devajyoti Chakraborty says, "The training involves 20 hours of programme.

"In the beginning we train every Saturday for two hours, but as the tournament nears, it becomes more rigorous and we train every Friday and Saturday for two hours. But towards the end, if we get selected we forget all the hard work - we are here at the tournament. We get free kits, food vouchers, tickets to the stadium. Most importantly, we get to see the players from the best possible seat in the house. So, the 20 hours that we put in is worth it."

Pic: Ajanta Paul

Stefania Bojica, 13, aspires to be a tennis player like Serena Williams. She says, "Although I am overwhelmed at times to be standing so close to these players, I am focused on what I have to do. I also learned a lot of things from them."

Another aspiring tennis player, 14-year-old Bea Acena, says, "I want to earn a scholarship in the US and take up tennis seriously. Being close to top players helps me understand the game. Being on the court helps me gain patience, sharpen my focus and understand the various nuances of the game."

Pic: Ashok Verma

Bea's younger sister Renee Acena has been a ball girl for three years and enjoys it more each year. "You learn so much from being a ball girl - like time management, respecting players, our conduct on court...”

Rubbing shoulders with their idols is once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and reward enough for these 12- to 15-year-olds.

Pic: Ashok Verma

Devajyoti says, "As a tennis player you would like to see and learn from these stars. It has worked for me as I have observed them and improved a lot after watching them play and copying their stances. It gives a better understanding of the game itself."

Ask 13-year-old Renee how being a ball girl has helped her and pat comes the response, "You never know what will happen in life. We have to be prepared for anything that comes our way just like how suddenly the ball may come to us and we have to be prepared for it."