Do Ball Boys Matter?

Goran Ivanišević once said he fights 3 battles when gets on the tennis court – one with the opponent, one with the umpire and one with the ball boys.

The ball boys? The kids that run around the court to fetch your tennis balls so you can save your breath? How could they be a reason for frustration? And since tennis is a very mental game, such frustration could cost the tennis player precious concentration moments.

As the game has become so much more physical and demanding, balls get worn out not only quicker but also differently and their bounce can change only after a few games. Over the years players have become increasingly picky about which ball they use for their first or second serve. We’ve seen Djokovic study them one by one before he makes up his mind. Gasquet on the other hand would insist on using the same ball if he just won a point with it. And, the ball boys are already “trained” to return that same ball to him.

I’m not sure how much of this is superstition and how much is logical, but one way or another, it probably pays to know how to communicate with the ball boys.

Both Federer and McEnroe worked as ball boys when they were kids. Not only did they display sheer passion for the sport (these are often volunteer roles), but also they watched the pros and their behavior from the best possible seats in the stadium. They’ve seen ball from the best angles and studied tennis players’ game and shot making in real time.

Having such ball boy experience on your résumé makes you familiar with the whole ball retrieving ritual, but more importantly builds some ball boy “vocabulary” and awareness. Now Federer personally greets the ball boys and other staff on the court before he starts the match. Is that a merely a gesture of politeness and general courtesy he’s naturally known for, or does he just want to get on their good side?

Given the amount of communication that happens on the tennis court, both verbal and non-verbal, I think the ball boys and how the players work with them might indeed affect their game.

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