Within days, the eyes of the tennis world will be on Melbourne, most specifically on the tennis centre where the cream of the pro circuit will be battling for the big bucks. But mostly unseen, hundreds of balls kids will be working overtime to make sure the whole tournament gels. ANDREW MOLE looks at tennis in a whole new light – as a tourist destination whether the Open is on or not
IT’S hard to bet on a two-horse race unless it’s a final of the Australian Open and one of the two is a guy called Novak Djokovic.
The Serbian tennis player loves Rod Laver Arena – he has won the title six times (five times in the past six years).
And that’s all I’ve got to say about the game itself.
Other than the fact 128 players in both the men’s and women’s competitions start out on the journey to singles glory.
However, for the real heroes of this story, as many as 3000 start out on the journey to also be on centre court on the same day as Djokovic – at the same time.
If you don’t know who I am talking about, or even notice them at all, they will have reached the pinnacle of their careers.
‘They’ are the ball kids, those teen girls and boys squatting at the nets, lurking in the shadows at the end of each court, tossing balls and towels to players, so no matter where the stars turn, their every need will be met.
BALL KID FACT: Did you realise the teams of ball kids at any game are changed every hour. If it is hotter than 45C on court, they are changed every 45 minutes.
It is one of the most sought-after gigs at the Open and it takes an incredible degree of planning, trialling and training to make sure you make the cut.
Ball kid manager Tanya Hall (better known as tournament operations co-ordinator) and her team will make an initial cut to 700 and then every one of those aspirants will go through a two-hour test to demonstrate their agility, eye-hand skills and the ability to actually throw a ball straight.
The latter, Hall confirms, is one of the hardest tests to pass.
“Tennis experience is handy, but not necessary, we get kids from cricket, netball, basketball, baseball and from no sporting backgrounds at all,” Hall said.
“Most important of all, we want kids who are coachable,” she said.
“Because you would be amazed how hard so many find it to simply bounce a ball to someone standing still, and have it arrive at hip height, let alone on centre court, to players wanting you to meet their needs and being watched by thousands.”
The coachable/co-ordinated test, one weekend in July, August, September and October cuts the talent pool to 340, to which will be added 20 ball kids from Korea, six from China, two from France and the top two from Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Hobart.
“Getting the squad organised starts back in March and is normally settled by the last weekend in October,” Hall said.
BALL KID FACT: Not only do they manage the balls, they are taught to fold player towels so whenever they are passed to players the logo on them is facing the cameras.
To help her get there Hall is backed up by 43 casual staff working around the year, all switching to fulltime in the run up to, and including, the Open. It represents the equivalent, she said, of 262 years’ worth of tournaments.
Many of those people are her former ball kids.
Hall also runs the trials for selection in Korea, attends the China Open to select the best six there and the program also has a special relationship with Stade Roland Garros and the French Open.
She takes their top two every year and at the end of the Open here she and her team, who have been rigorously judging the squad, name the top two who win a trip to the French Open.
Remarkably, Hall is not a graduate of the program she now runs.
Instead, she said she “fell into tennis, more or less”.
Working in UK leisure clubs for eight years she got into the team thing, and tennis, saw the job advertised here and the rest is history.
With a self-confessed Mother Hen complex she fusses over all her charges.
But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t offer tough love.
“The ultimate for all these kids is to get on the big courts, that’s what they want and we are tough on training,” Hall said.
“From time to time we come across exceptional kids and they really are standout performers, they really get the full role and excel.”
Ball kids can be as young as 12 and their career is over at 17.
It might not seem such a big deal but flawless ball, towel and drink management is part of what makes life on court so easy for the players.
Hall rarely needs to discipline a ball kid. “They really beat up on themselves if they make a mistake, these kids are all motivated and they all want to excel.”
And there is the flip side of life as a ball kid.
You get your own lounge, you get to see a lot of action for free, you get to be closer to the tennis stars than anyone else and when it’s all over you get a super bag of goodies, including a custom-made jumper and the coveted Australian Open player’s towel.
BALL KID SCOOP: For the past two years the ball kids have been dressed in blue but this year, with a new sponsor, they will be wearing green.
King of the ball kids
CAMPBELL STEEDMAN is heading into his last Open.
The Mt Eliza student has been a ball kid at the Open since he was 12 and was on court for the 2016 Djokovic-Andy Murray final – one of those rare naturals to be selected every eligible year.
Campbell came to the job from tennis after getting the heads up from his tennis coach.
Sitting at the tennis centre late last year he seemed about as laidback as you could get but did not hesitate to point out on game day it’s a seriously different scenario.
“The atmosphere is amazing, you have 15,000 people screaming, you see the pressure the players are under, the whole thing is the most fun I have had,” the veteran said.
Now too tall to work the net he trains for the baseline.
Either way you look at it there is always an inherent risk.
Sam Groth is the fastest server in men’s tennis, regularly clocking 260km/h.
And as Campbell can tell you, when you get one in the back of the head from a ricochet off the back wall 260km/h is enough to help you see stars.
Then there was his mate standing beside the judge’s chair who poked his head around to see what was going on – just in time for a wild smash to hit him smack on the point of the nose.
There’s no danger money, but as Campbell says, it helps you keep light on your feet.
Campbell’s reputation has seen him also work with the Davis Cup team (his first tournament on grass, so he managed to slip over) and he is already eyeing a role down the track with ball kid management group.
Provided he doesn’t severely blot his copy book in the 2017 Open.
Tours of the tennis centre are run daily, offering a sneak peek into the behind-the-scenes experience of two of Melbourne’s most dynamic sports and entertainment venues – Rod Laver Arena and Margaret Court Arena.
Visitors are taken through the backstage areas used during the Australian Open, including: tournament control, the player change rooms used by the world’s top seeded players, inside Rod Laver Arena , the Walk of Champions, Davis and Fed Cup rooms and inside the purpose built Media Theatrette that hosts the post-match press conferences during the tournament.
Scheduled Tour Times:
Monday to Friday: 11:30am, 1pm, 2:30pm
Saturday and Sunday: 11.30am, 1pm
Tours resume on Monday February 6.
Arrive 5-10 minutes before the tour’s scheduled departure time. Bookings are not required for small groups 10 people. Group Bookings of more than 10 people are required and those times are negotiable.
Contact Tennis World on 1300 TENNIS a few days prior to your visit to check the level of access on your chosen day.
Tours costs are: Adult $20, child $11, concession $16, family $52 and pensioner $15.