Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Should ball kids have to wear safety gear?

A few days ago I was watching the match between Feliciano Lopez and Radek “Sexy” Stepanek in an early round of the Rogers Masters event in Toronto. At one point, the left-handed Lopez returned a ball with vicious pace. It hit the ball boy squarely on the jaw. The ball boy grinned and shrugged it off. Cameras zoomed in for close-ups. Lopez approached him to make sure he was OK. He continued to grin cheerfully. It was no big deal, his body language suggested offhandedly. Just another day in the life of a ball boy at a professional tennis match.

But see, I didn’t trust his reaction. He may have been motivated to play down the incident, what with all those cameras in his face. Besides, ball kids are trained to carry on regardless of whatever happens to them on court.

Becoming a ball kid is a highly competitive affair. The US Open even has a mentoring program for hopeful aspirants. Hundreds audition for the honor of running up and down after balls in the hot sun. They are required to master such arcane skills as making the perfect throw and knowing how to kneel. Some do it for the free clothing and a few dollars. Most do it because they aspire to be pros one day. Federer has been open about his years as a ball boy in Switzerland. He recalls those years with great fondness. Maybe it’s because he never got clocked in the face by a ball going over 100 miles per hour.

Then again, even kids who get smacked seem to recall the experience with great affection. Caroline Hall, a former Wimbledon ball girl, recently told the Guardian about an experience in which she was hit on the side of the face by a ball that Tim Henman slammed into the court in a fit of anger. “You're trained to just carry on no matter what, so that's what I did”, she said. “I didn't feel that bad and besides I was 16 and I didn't want to lose face.” Spoken like a true teenager with cameras in her face. And that’s why I didn’t trust the reaction of the ball boy in Toronto. For all we know, his mother spent the night soaking his face in ice packs as he sobbed into her bosom.

If this were the era of slice and dice tennis using wooden rackets, there would probably be little cause for concern. But this is the era of power tennis, when even a dirtballer from Spain can hit the ball so damn hard that he ends up winning in three sets against a higher-ranked player whom he has never beaten before. [And just so you know, it’s not just Nadal who seems to be defying the odds – so far seven Spaniards have won ATP tournaments this year. If Lopez hangs on in Toronto, he just might make it number eight. But I digress.]

I know that the danger for ball kids is far greater in other sports. In 1994, 9-year-old Timothy Herman of La Crescenta died four hours after being hit in the head by a pitch in a baseball game. At the time, he was wearing a batting helmet. At first he actually continued playing. Once he got home, he complained of pain in his right leg. His mother later said that she left the room for two minutes – and returned to find her son collapsed on the floor. And more recently, 7-year-old Dominic DiAngi had to be put in a medically induced coma after he was hit in the head by a foul ball at a Cubs Game.

Tennis has no similar horror stories involving children. As far as I am aware, the closest we have come to this was an incident at the 1983 US Open. During the boys' singles final, Richard Wertheim, a linesman, was struck in the groin by a ball coming off the racket of Stefan Edberg. Wertheim fell backwards onto the court and fractured his skull; he died in the hospital a few days later. One ironic aspect to this story was that Edberg was just the nicest guy in tennis. To this day, he has an award for gentlemanly behavior named after him.

Tennis does however have some other bizarre stories involving ball kids. I remember as if it were yesterday the incident in which Sampras asked a ball kid to reach up inside his drawers to retrieve a ball that had rolled in there. To his credit, the kid refused. Rumor has it that Pete’s first coach was a pedophile. You’d think that his judgment would have been better under the circumstances.

Then there was the incident in which Djokovic clocked a Hugo Boss model in the head, sending her cap flying. To be honest, I did not feel too sorry for her. Models have no business on a tennis court. And besides, the incident probably helped her career.

But kids are innocent and deserve to be protected. If my daughter ever decided to become a ball girl, I would have some strict rules. For a start, she would have to be outfitted like a Canadian ice hockey goalie. Plus she would need to wear cricket pads – no daughter of mine is kneeling on any hot tennis court. All this plus a helmet and Kevlar suiting and she should be good to go. And knowing her, they would all have to be designed by Prada.

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