On Friday, March 14, the women’s singles semifinals at the BNP Paribas Open were played under relatively cool and star-filled skies at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Both matches were decided in straight sets, with Agnieszka Radwanska moving easily into the finals, and Flavia Pennetta overcoming a stiff challenge from 2014’s best women’s player, Li Na.
On Saturday, it was the men’s turn on the Stadium 1 Court. First up in the ATP singles semifinals under the blazing noon sun was the pairing of No. 7 Roger Federer and No. 28 Alexandr Dolgopolov; Federer won convincingly. During the next match, temperatures on the court pushed well past 90 degrees, and the brilliant sunshine glared into the eyes of both players when they were serving. John Isner and Novak Djokovic battled hard through three sets, with Djokovic finally pulling away to deliver a fans’ dream matchup when he faces Federer in the finals on Sunday.
No matter how challenging the conditions get for the pros, they have help: The BNP Paribas Open “ballkids,” whose job is to tend to each player’s needs.
“Our ballkids figure out the players’ idiosyncrasies so they can service them as well as possible,” explained 2014 BNP Paribas Open ballkids director Adam Jasick. “‘Do they want two towels, or do they want the balls here?’ There’s more complexity than you would imagine.”
Candidates for the tournament’s 400-member ballkid corps must be between the ages of 12 and 20 and undergo a minimum of four 2 1/2-hour training sessions before moving on to a court. One of the toughest tasks to learn: the choreography of team actions involved in retrieving and redistributing the balls when the pros are serving. That activity and others are overseen by 75 ballkid-team coordinators who range in age from 21 to 80.
“The coordinators provide the ballkids with what they need to make sure they can go out and be successful,” said Jasick. “They turn our kids into superstars and make them the best ballkids on the tour.”
In the tournament’s first week, when the tennis action is spread over nine stadium courts during both day and night sessions, the demand for ballkids is greatest. While most of the kids come from the Coachella Valley or elsewhere in Southern California, teams of trained participants come from as far away as Fairbanks, Alaska. During that first week, the ballkids are rated on their performance and attitude, with the best performers invited to stay into the second week of play. Further judging results in the selection of the elite corps of four ballkid teams who work during the semifinals and finals matches.
Joshua Phillips, of Palm Desert, is a veteran at the tournament. So what’s his favorite part of being a ballkid?
“I like to get out of school,” joked Josh. “It’s really cool. I started five years ago, and it’s nice to work my way up. And this year, I’ve gotten so close to the players. It’s a nice opportunity.”
His most memorable moment to date? “I was working a nightshift last year, and all these moths just started landing on the court,” recalled Phillips. “The chair umpire called time and asked us to pick up the moths, but I didn’t want to touch them. I wasn’t much help. I got maybe two off the court.”
Ballkid teammate Emon Shaaf, of Rancho Mirage, is also a five-year vet. The most memorable moment of his tourney experience involved one of his tennis idols.
“I was in the men’s locker room,” explained Shaaf. “And I had to use the bathroom. So while I was in there, I looked to my left, and there was Roger Federer. I was surprised.”
More great tennis action—and an unusual public moment of recognition for the ballkids—were yet to come. On Sunday, the day began with Flavia Pennetta facing Agnieszka Radwanska in the women’s final. Unfortunately, toward the end of the first set, Radwanska injured her left leg and succumbed quickly to Pennetta’s aggressive game.
Next came the much-anticipated faceoff between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic—and it provided all the thrills and tense moments one could want in a top championship match. After splitting the first two sets, Federer battled back from one break down late in the third set to force a tiebreaker. However, Djokovic regained control and grabbed the trophy by overwhelming Federer at the end.
Prior to each of the finals, the Ball Girl of the Year and Ball Boy of the Year were introduced to the crowd in Stadium 1. Winning ball girl Ally Ryan from La Quinta stepped in to flip the coin to determine the first serve in the Pennetta-Radwanska match before posing for photos with the two players. At the start of the Djokovic-Federer contest, ball boy Drew Matthews was honored in the same fashion, with renowned tennis champion and TV announcer John McEnroe getting into the photo op as well.
But once the balls started flying, everything was once again as it should be for these ballkids: They faded into the background as they did their work.
“The greatest compliment the kids can get is not to be recognized,” Jasick said. “The hope is that nobody realizes the kids are there—and then they’ve done an excellent job.”
Original version posted at 2 p.m., Sunday, March 16; revised version posted Tuesday, March 18.