Rafael Nadal’s Water Bottles and Venus Williams’ Kindness:
My Experience as a Ball Girl
Caroline L., '21, (second from right) and team with Venus Williams
By Caroline L.
April 23, 2019
Each year, tennis tournaments like the BNP Paribas Open take months of planning. Like any other major sports event, the venue has to be ready for the some 450,000 people who attend, employees have to be hired, and players must qualify, but one of the most important details necessary for running the tournament is often overlooked: ball kids.
As a ball kid at the BNP Paribas Open for the past three years, I can attest to the great amount of preparation the tournament puts into gathering and training ball kids. Due to the fast-paced nature of tennis, quick retrieval of loose balls is key to ensuring the match runs as planned, both for the players and the spectators. Every professional tennis tournament will have courts stocked with experienced ball kids who know not to be seen or heard.
However, it isn’t as easy as just signing up to be on the court with the greats. Every ball kid must go through extensive training to practice the finer details of being on the court, and to gain the trust of coordinators in that nothing will go wrong when we do our jobs. It sounds like a tall order, but the thrill of being next to the best tennis players in the world outways the daunting task of making sure each match runs perfectly.
I have to admit that the training sessions were a bit comical; we were tested mostly on our ball-rolling, ball-tossing, and umbrella-holding abilities. Every session ended with a mock match, in which we would assume our positions and hastily rush sweaty towels to the “players”.
I joke about our duties, but they are, in fact, pretty important in the grand scheme of professional matches with some of the greats. Flip through the ball kid training manual, and you’ll get a glimpse into the life of a ball kid, which includes remaining still during points, never smiling, and trying to figure out whether Serena Williams wants her towel, a banana, or a tissue. It sounds pretty lame, but the upside: you get to be inches away from some of the greatest athletes of all time.
A day in my life as a ball kid can look pretty busy. I might get to the hotel at 4:15 and have about 10 minutes to get into my uniform before leaving for the Tennis Garden in order to get there half an hour early, which they request of every ball kid.
Once I get there, I take a golf cart to the ball kid tent, check in, and I’m given a color, which represents my court number. Most ball kids wait with nervous energy in the line to check in, praying that they’ll be on the blue team, aka court 1. This is where all the best matches are played, even in qualifying, when formerly highly-ranked players who fell in the rankings are guaranteed to put on a good show.
I can wait up to an hour for my ball kid coordinator, and in this time, I can play ping pong, watch matches, or talk to other ball kids. There is a competitive nature to being a ball kid, especially around court assignments, where everyone always wants to be on court 1. There are those who have been ball kids for 7-8 years, know everyone, are loud, joke around, and make it known that they are the veterans. They will always be on court 1, and thus they trigger the competitive side of every other ball kid. “What court did you get?” “I think I’m on court 3.” “Oh… Maybe that’ll be a good match?”
After the competitive banter, our coordinators arrive, assign us our positions, and take us outside the tent to line up. From there, we march to whatever court we are assigned to, wait for the players to get there, and get onto the court. After that, it’s two to three hours of fetching tennis balls, handling sweaty towels, and standing still in the sun for up to 20 minutes at a time. Nevertheless, being a ball kid is the best possible experience. As a ball kid, I get some perks that spectators don’t. I obviously get to watch every match from on the court, but I also get tickets for almost every match, which my parents use during my shifts. My ID card gets me into a lot of places where players spend their time, and sometimes players come to the ball kid tent to answer questions.
This year, I got the chance to be on court 1 several times, and even though it’s such a superficial thing, it was an extraordinary opportunity for me to be right next to the best tennis players in the world. I had the opportunity to be a ball kid for Roger Federer, Venus Williams, Stan Wawrinka, Rafael Nadal, Angelique Kerber, Garbiñe Muguruza, Bianca Andreescu (who went on to win the tournament, at age 18), and many other great players.
The feeling of being on the court with these great athletes in such personal moments is staggering. Even in the most seemingly meaningless moments, like giving a player their towel, you can hear them talking to themselves, pumping themselves up, talking strategy out loud, and it almost feels like you’re about to have a conversation with them. In a way, you get to know the players throughout a match, and if you are on their court again during the tournament or the following year. From being on Venus Williams’ court, I know that she asks for another ball in between serves because she does not want to have a ball in her skirt in between points. Rafael Nadal always uses two towels, so even if I am not on towel duty, I will have to handle one, and let’s not even talk about his water bottles. Daniel Evans eats about 40 bananas every match (not really), so I always have to be ready to throw away his old peel and search for the yellowest, ripest banana, which he will have to approve before accepting.
These are insignificant moments to any spectator, but to someone who has grown up watching these players, they are anything but insignificant. I feel as though I know some of these athletes, and to watch them go on to win even more matches and accomplish great things feels special.
The BNP Paribas Open offers me a chance to be closer to the players than anyone else and feel what it’s like to really be a part of a professional tournament. As a player myself, I’m not looking to go pro, but something about seeing all of these incredibly athletic people who have dedicated their time and energy to perfecting something they love to do makes me want to work harder. Each year, I have the best time at the tournament, and I look forward to returning the next year. It truly is tennis paradise.