Forty-two boys and girls stand like sentries in staggered formation on a tennis court. Each of them is numbered and all of them are sweating from the strain of another day’s training. Their feet are shoulder width apart, hands clasped behind their backs, shoulders straight, chests out. Every one of them is still, silent and ready for inspection. Ten seconds ago they were running on the spot; a minute before that they were leaping into the air. Up and down and back up again. All the while their superiors have been watching, judging and yelling with clipboards in hand. “Jump higher! Sprint faster! Stand straighter!”
These are the chosen few who, assuming they continue to pass inspection, will represent Britain as ballboys and ballgirls at the Wimbledon Championships. Everything at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club is carried out with the utmost attention to detail, ensuring the sport’s most revered Grand Slam is fit for a queen. And not just any queen, but the Queen of England, who has, on rare occasion, made the 30-minute ride by Rolls-Royce from her palace in central London to the gates of the club. And though it’s a poorly kept secret that Her Majesty doesn’t really care for the game, the 375 full-time members of this club (many of them old, grey and bent diagonal over walking sticks) demand that their Championships still carry the appropriate degree of regality. So they drill their ballboys and ballgirls as if readying them to stand guard outside Buckingham Palace.
You can tell the ones who are trying not to faint by the way they move their eyes. They never focus too hard on any particular aspect of the tennis court. Focusing leads to blurriness, and blurriness is often a sign of a pending head rush. A head rush means you’re about to fall over, and if you fall over, you embarrass yourself. What’s more, you embarrass your country. And there’s nothing worse than embarrassing Britain, especially when millions of people are watching. And though they’re not actually watching right now, they soon will be. Especially for those ballboys and ballgirls—BBGs, as they’re called—who are selected to march onto Centre Court and fetch balls for the likes of Rafael Nadal.
But no one here dares to think that far ahead. It’s 13 days before the Championships start, and still no prospective ballboy or ballgirl has been guaranteed a spot in the tournament. Not long ago, these children, all aged 14 and 15, sat in rows on the tennis court, ecstatic but not showing it, for they had just received their official white running shoes. “These are your shoes,” a rather aggressive-looking trainer wearing a tracksuit and wielding a whistle yelled at them as they laced up their Filas, each of them tying a double bow as they were trained to do. “They are not for play. You do not wear them outside. They are for these courts and these courts only.”
Though receiving one’s shoes as a ballboy is akin to receiving one’s sword as a knight, there is no recognition of how important this moment actually is, or that they have been awaiting its arrival for nine months.
“I am excited,” prospective ballgirl No. 98 later explains. “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.” Away from the courts she is known as Florence Wilson, the name her parents gave her some 14 years ago. But inside the All England Club, she is No. 98—the girl who marches well and stands well but who sometimes gets caught with too many tennis balls clasped behind her back.
“Three balls good, four balls bad.” It’s one of the golden rules of ballboying. Hold too many balls behind your back and you risk dropping one. And dropping a ball is not becoming of a British BBG. They’ve heard the stories of past glories. There’s the well-told tale about the ballboy who broke his leg running into the net during a match but maintained his post until the end of the game. Then there are the stories of humiliation about the many BBGs who have succumbed to the pressure, heat and exhaustion that comes with the job and wound up lying unconscious in the grass before an unsympathetic crowd. Still, these children are the finest of any BBGs anywhere. Their French, Australian and American counterparts admire their discipline and poise both on and off the grass, which is so wet right now that they are not allowed anywhere near it. And so they train on North American–style hard courts across the road while Neil Stubley and his small battalion of groundskeepers dutifully water, seed and mow row upon row of perennial rye.
As the sixth consecutive day of rain descends on Wimbledon, Stubley’s grass is soggy but green. Grounds crews are monitoring the courts, which will need to dry if they are to be in shape for the pending tournament. Is he worried? “Not at all,” says Stubley, possibly the only groundskeeper in the world who comes to work in a suit and tie. Neither is his second-in-command, Grant Cantin, an Edmonton native who studied turfgrass management at Olds College in Alberta, and then somehow (not even he can explain it) wound up standing on the most important grass in sport.
Protecting Centre Court is a burden shared by man and beast. In the winter months, an electrified fence surrounds the court. In the summer, a security guard is never more than 30 feet away and is often joined by a German shepherd whose job it is to deter or kill any fox who might ruin a portion of the greenery with her ammonium-laced urine. But the foxes are just one of the constant threats to the grass and are actually less problematic than the pigeons who nest in the rafters, poop in the stands and feed on the nine tons of seed that are put down on the courts every year. For that reason, the All England Club employs a falconer and a Harris Hawk named Rufus, who circles overhead and preys upon unsuspecting pigeons grazing on the green. Rufus, who also keeps pigeons from desecrating the royal graves behind the High Altar inside Westminster Abbey, has provided aerial support to the guards for the past four years since he inherited the job from his predecessor, Hamish, who one day flew off and never returned.
But Rufus, Cantin and Stubley are not alone in readying this court for the Championships. Across Centre Court, a man named Stumpy stands with brush in hand. He has just finished repainting every single step inside the 15,000-seat stadium, and now he’s starting work on some of the walls. For 23 years he has painted these steps and those walls. It’s a five-month job, which guarantees that this year the walls and stairs are just as white and green as they were when he painted them last year and the year before. His is an art based on repetition and precision. Just like that of the ballboys and ballgirls.
After nine months of drills teaching them how to roll a ball (it must never bounce more than three inches from the ground nor drift onto the court) and present a ball (arm up above your head, then a gentle toss so the ball bounces once and reaches the player at precisely waist level), it is only now being hinted to these boys and girls that they might have what it takes to work the tournament.
Those left have survived the culls that depleted their ranks from the thousands who tried out to just 250 today. They have been kept because they demonstrate the fitness, obedience and intelligence required to march onto a court and blend in with the grass, collecting every faulty serve and ensuring no player goes wanting for a ball. Once the Championships begin, they will work in teams of six (one on either side of the net, and two behind each baseline). And even then they will continue to be watched and evaluated by their instructors, who will decide who is best suited to work on Centre Court during the most important matches.
Their uniforms—Ralph Lauren polos, shorts and skirts—will soon be doled out. But a loss of discipline on the court or a slip-up at school and these children could still be cut. It’s a troubling thought for those who have come this far and invested so many hours without any compensation.
“They watch you all the time,” No. 98 says. “If they see you not pushing yourself then you’ll get in trouble, maybe get kicked out.” She, like every other numbered child on these courts, knows full well that you’re not a BBG until the tournament actually begins.
“You don’t want to be complacent,” says prospective ballboy No. 56, Alfie Clark. The son of a comedian, he, like No. 98 and most of the other children, is of humble stock. “If I make it I will be the first of my family to be a ballboy, and that would be an honour.” A post once reserved for orphaned children of suburban London, the current crop of BBGs are middle-class schoolchildren trying to raise their lots in life by adding experiences like “fed a ball to Novak Djokovic” and other such rarities to their CVs.
No. 98 and No. 56 are aiming to emulate Kai Turrington, a returning veteran from last year’s Championships. No longer just a boy with a number pinned to his shirt, Turrington has earned the respect of his superiors. They now call him by his given name. One of the most successful ballboys of last year, he not only fed balls to Djokovic, he ran off court with the Serb’s racket and got it restrung after Djokovic smashed it into the grass. For demonstrating such leadership and calm under pressure, he was among a handful of BBGs chosen to join the guard of honour following the Gentlemen’s final. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his peers as the Queen’s cousin, the Duke of Kent, brushed past and awarded tennis’s most revered trophy to the Gentleman victor. “It was a very memorable moment in my life,” recalls Turrington. Memorable indeed for the diligent boy in clear view on the court. And yet completely overlooked by the millions who watch.
This story was originally published in the July 16, 2012 issue of Sportsnet magazine.
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