SLAVERY was abolished throughout the British Empire in July, 1833; unhappily, the news doesn’t seem to have reached the domed Palace of Wimbledon yet.
Within its ivy-clad, ancient walls and acres of close-cropped lawns the scowling aristocracy of world tennis point, gesticulate and snap their fingers to command instant obedience from the child lackeys schooled to answer their every selfish whim.
Andy Murray demands a towel be brought to him after each point; Novak Djokovic signals for his towel by simply gesturing impatiently behind his back like a bather blinded by soap suds; the obsessive/compulsive Rafa Nadal, when he isn’t hopping on one foot during the coin toss or arranging recovery drinks bottles in a precise and unchangeable order beside his chair, achieved what was even for him a notorious ‘first’ when he handed an energy bar wrapper for a ball girl to drop in a litter bin which was at his side!
Truly, this kind of behaviour puts the royal commands of Louis the Sun King in the shade and rivals even the persistent ‘valet puts toothpaste on Prince Charles’ toothbrush’ tabloid rumour.
It’s not just the men, either: the ‘lucky’ 285 lackeys who are selected from 800 schoolchild applicants each year are trained to know that a significant number of players want the same ball back if they have served an ace, the Williams sisters take only one ball at a time and the Dane Caroline Wozniacki, rejecting the custom of receiving balls from ballkids on either side of the court, accepts only balls only from her service side, requiring a constant stream of balls to whichever side on which she takes up her regal position.
And despite growing criticism of the cosseting and indulgence increasingly shown to the SW19 superstars the situation, far from improving the lot of the put-upon pageboys and glorified geisha girls, can only get worse.
This year, ball boys and girls – known as BBGs – as well as being hit with balls, shoulder-barged by players and battered by fierce sunshine now face extra training in the quirks and eccentricities of the world’s best players.
Wimbledon’s head of training, Sarah Goldson, a PE teacher, said the BBGs must “adapt to the players, their idiosyncrasies, and what they do”.
Even litter duty? Apparently so: asked about the Nadal incident, Goldson said that it was within the BBGs’ job description to take litter from a player, including the plastic bag from a player’s new racket.
And what thanks from the players? Do you ever see a BBG thanked, praised or rewarded by a player with an autograph or selfie?
Instead, they are more likely to hear the kind of petulant outburst displayed by French player Adrian Mannarino, moaning about his “joke” £7,000 fine when he was admonished by the umpire for colliding with a ballboy.
“What did I do?” he demanded. “I was just passing by. We were shoulder to shoulder. I cannot walk to my chair? Ball kids are the priority right?”
Right you certainly are, Adrian. Unless, of course, you are Rafa Nadal, in which case the list of do’s and don’ts taped to the BBG locker room walls might well read:
“On Mr Nadal’s return to the court, stay out of his way: he insists he must NOT be made to stand on a white line