Mark Magrath, the head coach for the Barclays Ball Kids, on how to act around angry tennis players, and – this is no small matter – when to hand them their towels.
Know the players’ habits
“We try our best to prepare the Barclays Ball Kids. Some of the players have their little habits. They can be fussy. Rafael Nadal will want two bottles put in the fridge at a certain time, and then later two more. You have to rotate them. You have to know which ones in the fridge are his, and which ones are supplied by the tournament or the ATP. When Roger Federer changes his racket, he wants a ball kid to pull the cellophane wrapper off. There are some players who will only take a ball from a certain side. So if the balls are with the ball kid on the other side, the player won’t take them. Some players want their towel kept on a specific side, such as the side where their coach or family are. There are lots of different things with different players. It’s weird. I have a list in my head of what certain players want.
“We will have a quick chat with the kids before they go on court if a player has a particular requirement. We don’t want to stress the kids out, though. There’s enough pressure already, with the TV cameras and the amount of money that’s at stake. The players are pretty keyed-up already, so we don’t want to add to that by creating any more friction. We don’t want Andy Murray or someone shouting at the ball kids because they’ve done something wrong at match point for a million pounds. We try to give them the background information they need. The kids have to be able to adapt to situations. I can’t prepare them for everything. Can they think for themselves and will it look as though they know what they are doing?”
Keep calm and still around angry tennis players
“Our key line to the Barclays Ball Kids, when a player is ranting and raving, is: ‘Look straight head, eyes open, mouth shut, stand still, don’t move’. Completely ignore the player. Don’t look at them. Imagine there is something on the far side of the stadium, and just look at that. There were a couple of occasions last year of players getting upset and ranting and raving close to the kids. When players have an argument with the umpire, the ball kid is usually trapped in the middle between the player and umpire. There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and shouting. The worst bit, when that is happening, is that the camera focuses in on the ball kid, so everyone watching on TV can see what their reaction is, so there can be no nodding of your head or opening your mouth. It’s vital for us that they can remain as calm as possible.”
Know when to give a player his towel
“The most common question asked by ball kids is when to hand the towel to a player. That’s the issue they worry about the most. The players sometimes don’t make it obvious if they want a ball or a towel. That can leave the ball kid thinking, ‘What do I do? Do I go to the player? Do I run up to him or let him come to me?’ The ball kid needs to observe the player and try to recognise the habits, and then at the end of a match we will have a quick chat with the team and they will share the hand signals, the winking, or whatever it was. That will give everyone some background knowledge for the next time.”
Work as a team
“One of the first things we look for when selecting the kids for the Barclays Ball Kids squad is either an outgoing personality, who can interact with a lot of people, or those who are quiet and assured of themselves, who know themselves and who are robust characters. As we create a team of ball kids, we try to blend those characters together. They are trapped together, in a small space, and they are doing a lot of work under a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of pressure on the kids to be unbelievably good and they have to interact with each other. If you spend all that time together, there are going to be some issues, so by blending different characters together, hopefully we will dilute that problem and take the tension away.”
Put in the effort
“We look for kids who are dynamic, who are fast. But we also look for kids who put a lot of effort into simple exercises. Let’s be honest, rolling a ball to your mate at the other end of the court is not difficult to do. But making it look good is very difficult. We tell the kids that the more effort they put into the simple exercises, the better they are going to look. If you make a mistake doing something well, no one notices. If you make a mistake looking sloppy, everyone looks at you. We’ve got a few funny stories of things that have gone wrong, but I was probably the only one who noticed.”
“The kids have a rough timetable about when they will go on court and how long matches are. They will be told to eat an hour and a half before the match, and not to eat anything else after that. Twenty minutes before they go on court, they do a full warm-up of stretching, jogging and sprinting, and changing direction. So when the match starts everyone, and especially the two at the net, are straight into it. We don’t want any pinged hamstrings. They should be warmed-up as if they were going to play a match themselves. I think the players appreciate that they are a little bit faster, a little bit more efficient, a little bit sharper, than at other tournaments. Novak Djokovic joined us for a training session at last year’s Finals. In Roger Federer’s champion’s speech in 2010, he mentioned how good the Barclays Ball Kids were. I had never heard that before in a speech. That was unbelievable praise.”
Regional selection trials for the 2012 Barclays Ball Kids squad will be held around the UK, starting on January 21st. For further details and to sign up, please visit barclaysballkids.com or the Facebook page at facebook.com/barclaysballkids