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  • Tom Eastman

Staying Always on the Ball

Jimmy Connors was once a ballboy, as was John McEnroe. There may not be any significance to that fact in regards to their status in professional tennis today, but the experience did provide them with an understanding of the game from all corners of the court. Similarly, many umpires and linesmen officiating at tennis tournaments such as the Volvo International rose up from the ranks of the ballboy and ballgirl corps. A pressure-filled and often thankless job, it it one which boys and girls working the Volvo International wouldn't trade for the world.

Linesmen and umpires prefer to stay out of the spotlight if possible, explaining that they know that they're doing their jobs right when a match goes by without incident That same level of efficiency is the goal of the nine-to-17-year-old ballkids positioned on the Mt. Cranmore Tennis Club Stadium's championship clay courts. Mature and responsible, they are driven by the same sense of dedication and commitment that characterizes the entire volunteer spirit of the Volvo International. As Tournament Referee Sean Sloane commented during the qualifying matches last Saturday, "Many of these kids are good athletes themselves, and they bring that same competitiveness onto the court with them. They take real pride in what they do, and in who they are, and they show that to the players."

That pride and self-confidence comes into action often during a match, but at no time is it more important than during a 12-point tie-breaker. At training sessions held earlier in the summer, Sloane and ballperson coordinator Mary Ann Limerick went over the system repeatedly with the youngsters to insure that they completely understood. "The tie-breaker really requires ballpersons to be alert, since that's when they're basically running a game," Mary Ann commented while supervising a training clinic at the New England Inn in Intervale a month ago. "Players will often test the kids out just to make sure that they know what they're doing, so they'd better be on top of things. If they are, the players can relax and concentrate on their game."

The players aren't the only ones who appreciate an efficient ballboy team. Umpires and linesmen are able to concentrate on their jobs more effectively as well. Says Volvo International chair umpire Joan Bird, "When you've got a good team of ballpersons working a match, everything else moves smoothly too. Especially in a tight match of major significance, it makes all the difference in the world to have the ballboys giving the balls quickly to the right player, get them towels and fresh drinks, and generally just be aware of everything going on. It's a tough job, but the ballboys and girls here really do a good job."

The training sessions conducted by Mary Ann Limerick and Sean Sloane are a major reason for the favorable rating given to Volvo International ballboys and girls over the past few years. Two clinics each were held in Concord, N.H., and Mt Washington Valley this past spring for prospective ballboys and girls, with large turnouts at each session. Children aged 7 to 17 attended the clinics, chasing balls and listening to the advice of experienced ballboys on hand to help out Mary Ann. Whenever a mistake was made during the play, Mary Ann would stop action immediately to instruct the youngsters on the proper procedures.

While most of the ballperson candidates catch on quickly, not everyone can expect to work a tournament match in their first year. Mary Ann takes pains to explain that nicely to the youngsters who, at age 7 or 8, are simply too small. The training sessions pay off in later years, however, since the kids are well groomed by the time they are 9 years old and ready for tournament action. In the meantime, they work for Annual Players' Wives Tournament at the Red Jacket each year, or help out as babysitters and scoreboard keepers during Volvo Week. "I always feel bad telling someone that they'll have to wait a year, but the kids are really good about it. If they work hard and study the rules, then there's a very good chance that they will be a ballperson the next year," Mary Ann stated.

Candidates who are good athletes and/or tennis players often do make it to the tournament action in their first year, Mary Ann noted, as they possess all of the qualities that make a good ballperson. "The biggest plus is to be able to know how to score a tennis match. Any kid who plays a lot already had that down, so it rarely takes more than one set for them to learn the basics." Those basics include being able to throw a tennis ball the length of a court on one bounce, an all important skill of equal significance to learning the 12-point tie-breaker system, Above all, every member of the six-person ball team must always be aware of what the score is, who's serving, how many balls a player needs, and a number of other small but decisive factors. Slip up on any one of these, and a player who can be somewhat intimidating will be there waiting for the ballpersons to get their act together.

The Volvo International requires nine teams of eight ballpersons to work the matches of the week-long tournament, with two persons acting as alternates. Four teams each work the morning and afternoon matches, aided if necessary by a swing team. In the early rounds, it's not uncommon to find a team working up to five matches a day. Later in the week, the assignment of teams to specific matches becomes more selective. Based on critiques by Tournament Referee Sean Sloane, teams are chosen for the semi-finals and finals. The pressure is really intense by that point, but the ballboys and girls selected are more than up to the task - they thrive on it.

Twelve-year-old Mike Desmarais of East Providence, R.I., was among those chosen to work the finals between Jimmy Connors and Eddie Dibbs last year. A five-year veteran, Mike is an example of the total family involvement which colors the Volvo International. His parents, Del and Marilyn work as tournament security volunteers; an older sister, Lisa, was formerly assistant ballperson director, and his sister Julie was a score girl. A netman - one of the two ballpersons who position themselves at either side of the net - he noted that he always has the butterflies at the beginning and end of the week, "I usually get a little nervous in my first few matches every year, and then I calm down," Mike remarked, "but then with the finals, I get all uptight again. You're on television in front of all those people and there's so much at stake."

But for all the pressure, there is obviously a lot of enjoyment for the energetic youngsters. Ballpersons not working a match are given a free lunch and admissions to see the matches; those on court receive the opportunity of meeting the players and being a part of the Volvo International's success. Tournament officials give them a cookout party at the start of the week as well, allowing them an opportunity to get to know one another and have some fun.

The matches are not without their amusing incidents, either. 1980 Volvo International Champion Jimmy Connors brightened up ballgirl Julie Rivers' day last year when he presented her with a flower from the box seats, after missing a shot. Second year ballboy Brian O'Donnell of Bethel, Maine, recalls that his most embarrassing moment on the courts came last year when he came close to hitting Connors in the chin during the quarterfinals. Perhaps remembering his own experiences as a ballboy, the champion feigned anger. "I think he was only joking, but he swung around and gave me one of those menacing stares of his before laughing," said the 16-year-old O'Donnell. Then there was that match last year when chair umpire Joan Bird was hit twice in one match by errant throws by a local ballgirl who has requested to remain anonymous. "As bad as it was, no-one seemed to notice," the eagle-eyed ballgirl commented.

In addition to having good throwing arms, Mary Ann says that ballpersons should also have good hands. "Over the years, I've gotten to know pretty quickly how good a candidate is just by watching him or her catch a ball a few times." Adds Sean Sloane, "Athletes make the best ballboys and girls, there's no question. Their competitive nature makes them want to try harder, and they're truly interested in the game. That coordination just has to be there, and that's what we look for."

Half of the youngsters serving as ballboys and girls at the Volvo International are local year-round or second home residents, while the majority of the remaining half are from Concord, N.H. Many of the locals are skiers whom Mary Ann and Volvo International Chairman Cindy Garland have coached at Attitash Ski Area in Bartlett. "I've gotten to know a lot of the kids and their parents through the ski program. Since many of the parents are involved in the tournament as volunteers, it really has become a close-knit group," Mary Ann remarked.

All the ballboys and girls are given checklists of pointers to help them approach their duties better informed. A few of the tips listed on the sheets include handing the ball to a player properly, feeding the newest ball to the player, moving the ball to the service court quickly and retrieving the ball without hesitation. Ballpersons are also expected to maintain their assigned position either at the net or at the baseline corners, waiting with their hands held behind their backs. Any ballperson who leans against the backdrop will soon find himself being told to correct his position by Mary Ann during a review session after the match.

The ballperson is also expected to keep score n regular games so that he or she can anticipate when to switch balls to the other end. The entire team has to know how to read hand signals for no balls, calling "mine" when two ballpersons go after the same ball, and how to motion balls down court to the service court.

Of course, there are a few exceptions to every rule. Technically, the proper way to give a ball over to a player is from the corner ballperson on one soft bounce, and not until he looks at the ballperson. Some players such as Stan Smith, however, like to have two balls during play at all times. Net ballpersons are therefore advised to hand the ball directly over to Smith, rather than throw it to the cornermen, Fifteen year old veteran ballboy Jess Lyman of North Conway says that it's also always a good idea to know beforehand which players like to hit a ball "hard at you when their anger is aroused."

Above all, being a ballboy or girl is an enlightening way to spend a summer week's vacation in the White Mountains, rubbing elbows with the top tennis professionals of the world. As Jennifer Sutton of Kearsarge commented when asked to describe why she's been a ballgirl for the past six years, "We all do it on a volunteer basis as a service to the players, but it's also just a great way to see some tennis." And then again, it's not a bad topic to write about on that first day back in the schoolroom in September, either.

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