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!"

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.

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003