Countdown to Wimbledon: Anyone for tennis balls?

The ball boys and girls at SW19 have to get it right. Kate Youde joins them as they go through their paces

Number 77 freezes at the middle of the net. "Who's just served, 77?" one of the tracksuited men and women armed with a clipboard bellows across the court, before hurrying across to advise his charge.

The nameless girl – identified only by the digits pinned to her front and back – is one of 50 silent recruits training to be part of the 250-strong army of ball boys and girls (BBGs) that will be on duty at Wimbledon.

Marshalling that army is Anne Rundle, whose benign appearance belies her sergeant-majorly role.

With eight days to go before the 125th Championships get under way, the teenagers – from 24 schools across south-west London and Surrey – are keen to toe the line, under the impression they could be axed from the squad at any time.

Following a kit check, No 77 and the others first endured a tiring warm-up regime of running on the spot and jumping. Now, they are engaged in a training exercise designed to simulate a real-life situation: they are practising moving the balls round the court during a tennis match. Former ball boys are purposely making errors, requesting towels, and forcing tie breaks to test their successors' skills. "Rain" suspends play.

The BBGs, whittled down from 700 applicants, will handle an astonishing 54,250 balls during the Grand Slam. And millions of television viewers across the globe will watch them do it.

"I am nervous I am going to make a big mistake," admits No 157, aka Cameron Monteith, 13, of Wallington County Grammar School. "Did you see the ball boy [at the French Open] who ran on to the court just as the player went to smash the ball and he ran straight into the player? I haven't done that yet."

The youngster says the BBGs must be on their toes constantly. "The trainers have to shout across courts to you but they are not shouting in your face," he adds. "They are quite nice, actually."

Indeed, Mrs Rundle, a grandmother of three, is a friendly, softly spoken lady. Now 65, this is likely to be her last tournament in charge. She is reluctant to retire from the "family". "It's a club rule," sighs Mrs Rundle. "The law changed a bit too late for me." She started helping out with the BBG training part time in 1969 when she was a maths teacher in Merton.

There have been many changes over the years: ball girls were introduced in 1977, with the first mixed BBG teams in 1980. But it was not until 1985 that the All England Club allowed ball girls to oversee matches on Centre Court. The ratio of ball girls to boys is now about 50/50. Mrs Rundle selects four teams of six to be responsible for Centre and No 1 courts, with six teams rotating around the other show courts. The remaining BBGs work on the rest of the courts.

The beady-eyed adults patrolling the practice are marking the children's feeding and ball rolling. Among them is Claire Strugnell, 28, assistant headteacher at Avenue Primary School in Sutton, who was a ball girl in 1998 and 1999 and now helps to train the teenagers.

She became the oldest ball girl at Wimbledon when, as a 22-year-old BBG supervisor, organisers opened up a court at short notice and she had to help out. "I still had false acrylic nails on from my university ball, which didn't help rolling the balls but it was good fun," she recalls.

The teenagers training today are from a range of backgrounds and schools. "These days, they are really nice children that come and do it," says Mrs Rundle. "When I first did it, it was more like reform school."

No 152, aka 15-year-old Helena Popovic, of Holy Cross school in New Malden, a Catholic state girls' school, has been training since October. "I am really scared but I have been watching the French Open and Queen's," she says. "Their ball girls and boys are really messy compared with us. "

Mrs Rundle adds: "I think in the French, the ball boys and girls are part of the razzmatazz, and in your face a bit, whereas at Wimbledon we are more in the background."

They are an important part of the tournament's history, nonetheless. Adrian Bailey, 16, who, with twin brother, Thomas, ball-boyed for Wimbledon's longest match – between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut last year – says: "The balls in the museum [from that match] we have actually touched!"

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin