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15 - 21 June 2020

Fever-Tree Championships

The Queen's Club

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Fever-Tree Championships: Windy, rainy, but time to get ready - a ball girl’s journey starts here

  • 15/05/2019

  • Major Events

Marin Cilic, one of the world’s best tennis players, smashes a serve down at 140mph. It thwacks into the net-cord, rolls back on his side of the net, and Novak Djokovic, his opponent in the 2018 Fever-Tree Championships final, resets to receive the Croatian’s second delivery. In a flash, the ball is plucked off the turf and sits safely in the hands of one of two girls kneeling silently courtside, either side of the net. It happens so seamlessly that many viewers won’t even notice it. The ball girls’ eyes return to the server. They know what to do. They have trained for this moment.

In the London borough of Sutton, more than six weeks before the 2019 edition of the annual tournament at The Queen’s Club, prospective ball girls are being put through their paces.

Year 8, 9 and 10 students from Nonsuch High School for Girls and St Philomena’s Catholic High School for Girls make up the team of ball girls for the Fever-Tree Championships every year, and just like the players competing in the tournament, they have to earn their places.

Starting in late September and continuing right up to the start of the event in June, the intensive selection process requires considerable commitment to see through to the finish. Through the cold winter months and the stressful exam season, the girls train every Friday after school and a few Saturday mornings too, adding up to almost 40 hours of practice in total. They begin as a group of 140, but they’re ultimately whittled down to 80 as head trainers Nicky Holmes and Dee O’Reilly look for girls with the right motor skills, hand-eye co-ordination and attitude. The final number selected will be a mix of returners and newcomers.

Their first Saturday session of the year, held at the end of April, provides a good glimpse into the effort that goes on behind the scenes to make sure everything runs smoothly once they get to The Queen’s Club. 

Despite the bitter wind sweeping across the playing fields at St Philomena’s, making it feel more like a January day, the girls turn up in droves. The session starts with a presentation in the gym about how to enter and leave the courts correctly, before a two-and-a-half-hour activity outdoors in the drizzle where the girls simulate matches and practise their various roles.

The nimble and nippy girls tend to be the net runners, whereas the baseline positions are usually covered by the taller girls. By this stage they’ve all learned the basics - throwing and rolling the balls with the correct technique, where and how to stand on court, when the balls need to change ends - but there’s still plenty of fine-tuning to be done.

“Some people think being a ball girl is easy”, says Teresa from St Philomena’s. “But you need lots of different skills, including an understanding of the tennis scoring system. And most of all you need stamina – both mental and physical – because the days can be quite long and you have to concentrate hard when you’re on court.”

After overseeing the process for the last 27 years, Mrs Holmes and Miss O’Reilly know how to identify the students who demonstrate these skills. Along with three other trainers, they keep a close eye on the girls all morning, offering plenty of praise and advice. The aim is to instil confidence in the girls so they can perform well under pressure once they step onto court at The Queen’s Club.

Despite all the preparation, the exact tournament conditions are impossible to replicate at school. The first time the girls get on grass courts is for the qualifying event at The Fever-Tree Championships. This is also the first time they will experience the power and speed of the professional game up close.

“It can be pretty terrifying when you’re standing in the corner and serves are coming at you at 130mph”, says Vania from Nonsuch. “But we do have an exercise to prepare for this where we basically stand a few metres apart and throw balls at each other, learning to dodge out of the way as quickly as possible. It’s great fun!”

As the end of the session approaches, tournament director Stephen Farrow turns up to provide some extra incentive. It’s something he does every year, and his presence must make the whole experience more real for the girls. He serves as a reminder that they are not just practising aimlessly; they are getting ready to take part in one of the most prestigious sporting events on British soil.

“Every year we get such incredible feedback about the ball girls’ professionalism and performance on court”, he says. “They are some of the best in the world, and a big part of that is down to the dedication of their trainers. Mrs Holmes and Miss O’Reilly really are two experts in their field, and I’d like to thank them for everything they do. It’s not an easy job. I hope the ball girls are just as excited as we are for this year’s tournament to start!”

Stephen brings along the magnificent trophy for the girls to admire, as well as some words of encouragement from Top Ten player Stefanos Tsitsipas in the form of a special video message. The Greek Next Gen star will make his debut at the Fever-Tree Championships in 2019, and he’s sure to be popular among the ball girls who often seem to strike up a special connection with some of the players. Grigor Dimitrov posed for a photo with them after lifting the trophy in 2014, and last year Denis Shapovalov surprised them mid-tournament with a Q&A opportunity.

“Most of the players are really nice”, says Clara, who will ball girl for the third consecutive year in June. “They are happy to sign autographs for us and once I even managed to get Feliciano Lopez’s sweatband! Meeting Shapovalov last year was incredible, and a definite highlight of the week. We didn’t know what was going on, Mrs Holmes ushered us into a room, and then suddenly Shapovalov walked in. We all just screamed because we were so excited!”

At midday, the girls disperse. Nonsuch and St Philomena’s are two of the best schools in the area, meaning lots of students travel from far and wide, and they often have long journeys back home. But it doesn’t matter. Come rain or shine they will be there. The possibility of being at the Fever-Tree Championships is all the motivation they need.

“It’s such a fun experience and a great way of making friends,” explains Trinity. “We have so many stories and memories from the week that will stay with us forever. The most demanding part of it all is the training, but being at Queen’s for the tournament is the perfect reward for lots of hard work.”

Words by Matt Roberts