Stood in even rows, six wide, six deep, numbers fixed to our front, we look like those Filipino prisoners on youtube about to do the Thriller dance. But the life of a South-east Asian inmate, I will soon find out, is easy by comparison.
Becoming a Wimbledon ball boy or girl is not a matter of life and death. It’s far more important that. Yes, you get to hang out with Roger Federer, but you’ll be doing it, for two weeks, while all your mates are at school. On the covered courts of The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, in the shadow of the world’s most famous tennis arena, this is where such dreams are made real and hearts are broken.
No wonder nobody smiles, there’s too much at stake. We begin with the warm-up. A female PE teacher doing her very best impression of the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket guides us through a seemingly never-ending medley of star jumps, squat thrusts, high knees and the like, the sort of activity no normal person ever does once their mum has stopped sewing their name into their shorts. But then, almost no one here apart from me has made it past such a point.
In front of me, number 64 is squat thrusting away like Zebedee on speed. The last time I was subjected to indignity such as this, this little bundle of energy wasn’t even born.
Afterwards, as we stand stock still for three minutes, in the position expected of a ball-fetcher to the stars, the instructor-come-prison-warden peers from her raised balcony, eyes peeled, clipboard out, singling out the knackered ones. “213, Are you okay?” she asks (that’s me). What she means, is: “You are pathetic.”
“Yes I am, Miss,” I answer, lying (everyone is a Sir or a Miss. Forget that just once and it’s a summer of double maths, not double faults, for you).
From around 1,000 initial applicants, 250 ball boys and girls, BBGs as they are known, will make the cut, taken from 29 schools - posh and decidedly unposh alike - in south west London.
Some will be bases. They stand at the back, gathering up the winning shots, and bouncing the balls to the serving players - height required. Some will be centres. They crouch at the net, and scamper across collecting netted shots, like Dickensian children darting under the factory steam hammer to unpick tangled threads before it slams down again - pace required.
Both types need to master the art of “rolling”, the indispensable skill of powering a tennis ball half a court length along the ground into the open palms of your stationary colleague. It is not straightforward, it transpires. “If you can’t do it in here, on the hard courts, you’ll never be able to do it on grass,” explains Sarah Goldson, another PE teacher, who is in her second year in charge of operations here. “It’s got to be faster, 213. Faster. You’re jogging. There’s no reason to be jogging. You should be sprinting to gather that ball, sprinting.”
The art of feeding - standing stock still, your arm snapped skyward, ball in hand, ready to bounce on to Novak Djokovic’s waiting racket - is the BBG’s most instantly recognisable skill. Watch closely at the Australian Open, or the US, and you’ll see balls idly lobbed from person to person. Not here. “You must imagine you are stood between two brick walls, one right in front of you, one behind,” Ms Goldson continues. The head must be straight, and the arm must be raised high in the air without it leaving your side. Break the plane of either of these imaginary partitions and, again, it’s a summer spent in your school blazer, not your Ralph Lauren standard issue BBG kit. Again, I disappoint. “Get that wrist straight, 213. No! Straight! Straaaaaight!”
“You can’t replicate the atmosphere, but you can tell who’s got concentration and focus,” says Ms Goldson.
You certainly can. Number 82 snaps his arm to the feed position and stares me down like a man facing a firing squad who will only pull the trigger if he blinks.
And there are other skills to master, too. At the start of each match, or after a rain suspension, they are required to march out on the court in step. Each must make it to their base positions at the same time as their opposite number, who they cannot see. The cry of new balls please sets in motion an almost unimaginably complex process merely to retrieve six new tennis balls from a bucket. Likewise, the end of a match has its own fixed protocol.
“No, no, what are you doing? We are still celebrating!” asks one instructor of number 220, who has made an untimely entrance with the towel. “I have just won Wimbledon! What are you doing? Do not come on with the towel until the players have left the court and are back in their chairs!”
The ball boys and girls are formed into teams of six and are under constant assessment. At the end of each match the team is scored out of five.
During the tournament, Ms Goldson will be stalking the courts with her clipboard. Only a few BBGs will still be required come the final weekend. They are not paid, but they have free lunch and snacks in their own canteen, rotating one hour on court, one hour off.
“I thought they’d all be mad tennis players, but they’re not at all,” she says. “Some are more into football. If they like tennis too much it can be a distraction.” At the French Open at Roland Garros, the centres at the net are instructed, like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables , to look down, and not follow the play. At Wimbles they are allowed at least that little luxury.
One such centre is Jonelle Dadson, a nippy 15-year-old from Saint Cecilia’s School in Southfields. This will be his second tournament.
“My friends are massively jealous, yeah. Two weeks at Wimbledon, and they’re at school,” he says. “I wouldn’t ever be able to get tickets, and here I get an opportunity to meet some of the best players in the world.”
Last year he was mainly on the outer courts, but is hoping for a taste of the big time. “I’ve got to practise my rolling,” he says. “Rolling is the most important thing. It’s got to be fast. It’s just got to be fast.”
BBG errors can be big news. One boy who ran on midpoint at the French Open two years ago has now had his moment of eternal shame watched almost half a million times on youtube. Jonelle’s big mistake, he confesses he got away with. “Last year, in my second game, my zipper was open. A spectator told me, before any of the assessors saw. Lucky.”
It’s an easy mistake to make when you’ve as much to remember as he does. Six balls are used at any one time. Three have to be in each corner on the server’s side. When Jonelle dashes out to gather a misjudged drop shot, he must know in advance which of the two sides is a ball down, and run back to that side. Between points the bases will hold their hands out to show how many balls they have, but during the point, they must be hidden again behind the back. To reveal a ball midpoint, would mean the player could suddenly see two. That’s the sort of error that will see you sent back to school.
When it’s match point Jonelle must get back to the umpire’s side, or he’ll incur the wrath of the press photographers whose shot of the post-match handshake at the net he’ll be blocking.
Aiofe Janmohamed, 15, is also a second timer. She is tall, a textbook base, Last year was her school, Tiffin Girl’s School’s first time on the Wimbledon roster. They took it pretty seriously. “We had special training and classes for it in school, before we even went for the selection day.” That’s not to say she doesn’t still have plenty to learn this year.
“Last year I was RB2. This year I’ll be RB1.” R’s are on the umpire’s right hand side. Two’s are on the far side of the court, One’s the near side. “It means there’s more interaction with the player. You have to deal with the towel, which has to be presented to the player, completely flat,” she explains, before adding, dreamily: “I’ll be handling Nadal’s sweat.”
The BBGs are prepared for the unexpected too, like if a player drops a racket, or even asks their opinion on a line call, which has happened before. (you say, 'I don’t know Sir, or Miss').
But not everything can be prepared for, says Aiofe: “Last year, in a Victoria Azarenka game, a pigeon kept hitting the roof. We kept having to go round and collect the feathers. it was snowing feathers. She was getting annoyed. In the end she helped us gather them up.”
There is one scenario, too, that simply cannot be replicated. Probably the most brutal of the coaches, a teaching assistant called Hayley Theobalds, was a ball girl herself from 2002 to 2004. “Being hit with a 120 mph serve is quite memorable,” she says. “And it will happen to all of them.”
Nice work, if you can get it.