Ball-kids under starter’s orders
"Can we go? Are you ready?... 3, 2, 1, go !" The "ballos" are on site, all 250 or so of them. With two weeks until the start of the French Open, the ball-kids who will be working at the tournament took their first steps on the Parisian clay on Sunday at their last training day. It was a first for them on clay, and for many of them, a first time at Roland-Garros. 3, 2, 1...
Fully focused ahead of the exercises that await them and maybe a tad intimidated by the décor no doubt, the teenagers barely raise their voices as they go through the walkways on their way to stands of courts Nos.2 and 3. The atmosphere is a solemn one, along the lines of a dress rehearsal in a theatre that will be their home for three weeks. They need to get used to the scenery but also the surface of the 'stage'."You’re going to see that clay will require adjustments based on what you’re used to on hard courts," says David Portier, head of the ball-kids department, by way of introduction and also warning. "When you run and when you stop, there are all sorts of little changes you’ll have to integrate."
"Can you imagine what it’s like when it’s full of people?"
Throughout the afternoon, the youngsters – aged 12 – 16 – learn all about what makes clay so special, soaking up the advice and the warnings (along the lines of "all that starting and stopping is going to have an effect on your legs"), as well as various snippets of insider information about the various men’s and women’s players they will have to work with on court ("So-and-so always asks for the same ball she just won the last point with, so-and-so always wants his towel between every point" etc…)
Most of the ball-kids have yet to work at a French Open (a select few are allowed to come back for a second year to keep an eye on the new intake), but they learn quickly, and have no doubt seen enough of the tournament on television to know the words and the gestures that "pro" ball-kids need. "Good grip," one of them is heard saying, as he knocks the clay dust from his trainers on the walls of the stands. For the likes of Gabriel, Noé, Charlotte, Antonin, Cyril, Alexis and Erwan, who were selected from over 2,500 applicants at the national selection stages all along the year, the big day is drawing ever nearer. One of them, sitting alongside his many new colleagues, looks from the stand of No.2 Court towards the shadow of Philippe-Chatrier Court just behind them. "Can you imagine what it’s like when it’s full of people…?"