Like many sports, tennis is fast, and rhythmic. Apart from the players, few tournament enablers are as responsible for maintaining the pace and efficiency of the game as the ball kids.
Anyone who has watched a professional tournament is familiar with these scurrying children, who either stand sentry-still at the back of the court with their hands behind their backs, or crouch netside, like cats waiting to pounce on a mouse. The job is demanding, physically and mentally, and it requires the precision of a drill team.
The six scurrying children assigned to each match retrieve loose balls, and roll them, if necessary, to their teammates down the line or across the court. On request, they toss them to the serving player, bouncing them from arms held shoulder high with crisp right elbow angles so that balls are easily visible and received exactly chest high. On request, they hand players towels between points, and return them to hang just so at the back of the court. They hold umbrellas over the players to protect them against sun and precipitation. They probably whistle "Dixie," if requested, and they must do all of these things quickly and with minimal distraction. A skilled scurrying child is as fast and invisible as a line umpire who never misses a call.
The BNP Paribas Open is one of the top professional tennis tournaments of the year, sometimes referred to as "the fifth major." Held in Indian Wells, it concludes Sunday after nearly two weeks of competition by players who are almost as good as the 435 ball kids who have graced the courts. Ball kidding is such a popular gig that 324 of them this year are veterans of the tournament, and they come from as far away as Canada and the foreign land of New Jersey. Rumor has it that one year they had a ball kid from Alaska, but he/she probably just took the wrong turn at the Iditarod tryouts.
Youngsters between the ages of 12 and 20 may apply, and this year officials had to close the window early, after receiving 600 ball kid applications. Carrie Scofield, 17, was one successful applicant, and because she had ball-kidded for six consecutive years, was a shoo-in, and was required to attend only half of the four training sessions newbies must complete.
Scofield's not the only ball kid with such a long tenure; one of the 65 ball kid coordinators said there were at least 30 long-termers this year. The attraction, of course, is the close proximity to the world's best tennis players. But that's not all. "We get free food," said Scofield (pictured). "We're very big on food."
She's also very big on tennis, and is headed next year to Calvin College to play on the Michigan school's Division III tennis team. A senior at Yucca Valley High, she has played tennis since she was 10. She lives in Pioneertown, about 50 miles from Indian Wells. Its claim to fame is Pappy & Harriet's, the honky-tonk roadhouse that draws music talent like the Indian Wells Tennis Garden draws tennis talent.
Scofield wants to be a special education teacher, but at least one former ball kid is a professional tennis player. Claire Liu, also 17, from Thousand Oaks, ball kidded at the BNP Paribas from 2010 to 2014. Last year, she was the No. 1-ranked junior, and she won the girls' Wimbledon Junior title. At this writing, she's ranked No. 271 in the WTA. She lost here in the first round last week.
Some ball kids work only a few days of the tournament, or work only night shifts. They're kids. They go to school. But Scofield's working the whole tournament, and was assigned to a match the afternoon of our chat -- midweek at 1 in the afternoon. Is she on spring break?
"I ditched the whole two weeks."
When I ditched high school, we left campus without permission and paid for it later. To this angel-faced, guile-free teenager, "ditching" means getting permission from the school to be absent. There is hope for the post-millennial generation.
Scofield is as good a student of tennis players as she is of tennis. She has worked enough matches with Caroline Wozniacki -- who won the Australian Open in January, and was seeded No. 2 here, but lost in the fourth round -- to know that the Danish player "gets her towel only from the deuce side." She's worked enough matches with Rafael Nadal to know that "Rafa has two towels, but he won't change over until the deuce towel is given to him first." Roger Federer, she knows, like everyone else in the solar system, "is really nice. He used to be a ball kid, so he understands if you mess up."
Scofield has such high standards that "messing up" means misreading a player's poor communication. Some players, she said, just look at you when they want a ball; some nod. "You have to figure out what they want." In a match featuring Serena Williams, "She looked at me," she said, "so I thought she wanted a ball. So I threw her the ball, but she had looked away, and it almost hit her. She caught it just before, and threw it back."
Williams is famously impatient with anyone who doesn't perceive her every need, but Scofield possesses that critical ball kid trait -- she takes nothing personally. Behavior others might see as rude, she sees as intense focus.
Scofield's biggest surprise occurred during her first year as a ball kid. The powerful John Isner was serving, and when she saw it coming right at her, she moved away. But not fast enough to escape the impact of the 143 mph fastball. It hit her in the side right before she crashed into the scoreboard. Isner apologized immediately, and profusely, which made the resulting bruise a lot easier to bear.
"I was hit by a serve the first day this year," she said, but it was in a qualifying round, and she doesn't remember who was the player. And because qualifying court scoreboards don't display serve speed, she wasn't sure how fast it was. "Probably 115," she shrugs, now a master of such metrics.
Scofield's favorite player is Frenchman Gael Monfils, who retired in the third round of this year's BNP Paribas because of injury. She likes him because "he gets to every ball, he puts effort into every shot. ... And he has fancy tricks." He's also gracious. "He always thanks you for the towel."
She understands the pros' will to win and the rough edges a strong drive can carve, but Scofield has worked for a couple of grumpy guys who would grouse at the ball retrieval speed of Usain Bolt. One guy, she said, "wants everything fast and he gets mad if you don't get it to him fast enough."
Oh, well. One of the coordinators has made a fresh batch of brownies. Being a ball kid is tough, but the perks are dope.
Photos: Ellen Alperstein