Inside the world of Wimbledon ball boys and girls
LONDON -- There is a silent but spirited competition taking place at Wimbledon, one so inconspicuous that if you'd noticed it by now, its participants wouldn't be doing their jobs.
It's the race to be selected as a BBG -- that's Wimbledon insider speak for "ball boy and girl" -- who has the privilege of working one of the final four days on Centre Court.
Despite the fact its competitors betray little more than stoic indifference, it's as cutthroat as the competition between the lines.
"You really want to get on a show court," says Erin Moreth, 16, a second-year ball girl and local high school gymnast. "So when you look into the crowd and see the instructors, you're pushing it and pushing it to get that good score."
At no tournament as much as at Wimbledon, the ball boys and girls stand out precisely because they train tirelessly to blend into the fabric of the All England courts. They are neither to be noticed nor to be heard; high scores depend on it.
"Discipline is our No.1 priority," says BBG manager Sarah Goldson. "They have to stand absolutely still, and the way they feed the balls -- with their arms straight -- is different from the other slams."
Two-and-a-half hours a week for the past five months, the 258 BBGs working the 18 courts at All England have trained to learn their roles as "centers," those positioned at the net, and "bases," those who stand at each end of the court, and to perform their duties with the precision of the Queen's Guard.
Each team of six BBGs is made up of two centers and four bases and remains together for the duration of the tournament. On the first day, captains are selected and the teams learn each other's names and begin bonding as a unit.
Before the Championships comes the tryout, an annual event preceding each of the four Grand Slams. At the US Open, for example, ball person tryouts are open to all ages because students have returned to school by the time the tournament begins in late August; last year, ball people at Flushing Meadows ranged in ages from 14 to 56.
At the Australian Open, kids from around the world travel to Melbourne to try out for one of 380 annual spots. In Paris, more than 3,000 kids apply each year. And in January, more than 800 kids ages 14-18 from 32 local schools auditioned to become a Wimbledon BBG.
"I've never done something so stressful in my life," says Nick Yates, a 15-year-old ball boy working his first Wimbledon. "No exam has come close."
Even after learning he'd made the selection, Yates says he still was unable to relax into the process. "Each week, they remind us that if you don't perform to the highest standards, you'll be dropped," he says.
Adds Moreth: "It wasn't until I had my pass around my neck that I believed I was in."
During the tournament, the stress only builds. Throughout each match, senior instructors sit in the stands mixed among the fans and grade the teams on various criteria, including their appearance -- the logos on their socks and wristbands must face precisely the right way, their hair must be neat and jewelry is prohibited -- their hustle and how well they execute the intricate choreography required to feed balls around the court.
"I used to see the ball girls on TV and I was interested in how they were like shadows," Moreth says. "It was so professional and I liked the perfection to it."
Each morning, the BBGs arrive at 10 a.m. for the morning briefing and the captains check the whiteboard hanging in the manager's office for his or her team's court assignments. If a team is working a match featuring a player with unusual idiosyncrasies, the instructors fill them in on how best to accommodate that player. A piece of paper hangs on a wall in the underground BBG office listing superstitious players and, when it is known, each player's particular superstition. It is just one more detail each BBG must remember.
"Quite a lot of players, if they serve an ace, they'll want that ball back," Yates says. "So we have to know to feed that ball immediately."
Venus Williams, like her younger sister, only takes one ball at a time: She never holds a second in her shorts, like most of the players. Rafael Nadal never walks on the lines, so centers must be aware not to block his line-free path and bases must be cautious when handing him his towel. Andy Murray wants the towel after every point, and Djokovic typically asks for the towel by reaching his arm behind him, never looking at the BBG.
At match point, the centers must remember to run to the same side of the court as the chair umpire, so the photographers have an unobstructed wide-angle shot of the final point.
"The hardest part of our jobs is the mental endurance," Yates says. "There's always something you've got to think about while giving your all physically."
Are any players known for being particularly difficult to work with?
"Wozniacki," the pair says in unison.
"Well, she's not so much difficult, it's just knowing what she wants," Moreth says. "She's very specific."
To wit: most players will receive balls from a base standing at either side of the court, but Wozniacki prefers to receive balls only from her service side. It is up to the centers to constantly feed enough balls to each base, so no matter to which base she turns, he or she has a sufficient supply.
"The poor team that had to go out to her first match -- we saw a video and they had to keep rolling balls across the back of the court to make sure each base had enough when she needed them," Moreth says. "We got briefed after her first match. We have to work a bit harder when she's on the court."
After the match, fans took to Twitter to chastise Wozniacki for mistreating the BBGs, but Moreth says as a ball girl, it is her job to know the quirks of each player and to cater to them. In that instance, the team simply was unaware.
"Some players are very superstitious," Moreth says, "so we have to be extra careful." When fans again criticized Rafael Nadal for asking a ball boy to throw a drink lid into a garbage can he easily could have reached on his own, Moreth says the other BBGs weren't angry or offended. They were jealous.
"I want to do things like that," Moreth says. "I love to help out because I feel like I'm playing a part in the match. And it means we don't have to stand still for as long. For me, that's so hard."
But nothing, she says, is as tough as a tiebreak.
"No question," Yates says. "Tiebreaks are so hard. They're everything centers have to think about in one shift condensed into about 10 minutes. It's 10 times more complicated than anything else."
None of this, however, is new to the instructors who've been working to train ball boys since the program began in the 1920s; in 1977, ball girls joined the teams.
"Andre Agassi would never let the centers go to the back of the court and he'd worry if each ball boy wasn't in place," says BBG senior instructor Lee Blackwell. "Some players feel confident when more experienced BBGs are on the court. Djokovic is one of them."
Blackwell was 14 when he walked onto Centre Court to work the 1998 men's final between Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic. Before his days as a Wimbledon ball boy, he wasn't much into tennis. After that experience, he began playing and years later returned to work as an instructor.
"It's the biggest tournament in the world," he says. "I'm 14 and Pete Sampras is asking me for water. That doesn't happen every day, now does it? It's a memory I'll never forget."