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!"

News
The cartoon depicts the UK (far left) walking around a Syrian child refugee
newsIn an exclusive artwork for The Independent, Ali Ferzat attacks Britain's lack of 'humanity'
Life and Style
Man taking selfie in front of car
health
Sport
footballManager attacks Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp after criticism of Diego Costa's apparent stamping
Life and Style
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Frozen out: despite being filmed in Iceland, 'Fortitude' is set further north, in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard
tvGerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Life and Style
Carmen Khu from The Royal China Club pours a cup of Dai-Hong-Po tea
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
film
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.

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore