(December 14, 2012) NORCROSS, GA – I spent the day at the quarterfinal round of the playoff for the US wildcard entry to next month’s Australian Open. I saw young and upcoming Americans, such as Madison Keys and Christian Harrison, and veteran pros, such as Bethanie Mattek-Sands, trying to get into the draw. At this level, where players are ranked anywhere from 123 to 474, it is always amazing to see the pace and depth and placement of shots, knowing the ability of these athletes is so close to those who get automatic entries into the Slams and Masters tournaments.
But after watching three plus matches, I decided on my way home to focus my report on one of the smallest folks at the tournament. I had the pleasure of watching Matthew, from Vidalia, GA, do his job as a ball boy at the matches I watched. He was by far the smallest in stature of the ball people; at the net he did not need to kneel because his head barely cleared the net. I’m able to say that he was on the ball, pardon my pun, for the matches he worked. In the last match, due to a shortage of ball people, he was the only person at the net for a set and a half. But there he was, running for every ball anywhere close to him, realizing when not to roll the ball to the baseline because the server was ready. Having to take extra strides with those small legs, he was as active as any player on the court. However, when I told him after the match what a great job he had done, his nonverbal response was he was just doing his job.
Earlier this year in Gijon, Spain, at the US vs. Spain Davis Cup tie, I was impressed by another ball person. She is taller, older, and, sorry Matthew, prettier than Matthew. She appropriately had a ponytail because she reminded me of a pony trying out his legs, somewhat uncoordinated at times. The first day the Netheads had to agree that she was not on the ball. She, sorry for being politically incorrect, threw the ball “like a girl” with the ball going all over the place. She would daydream occasionally and forget to chase a ball. When one ball hit the serve speed clock and took a weird bounce, she took forever to find the ball.
But she never gave up and never lost her smile. The second day she was vastly improved (she learned to roll the balls rather than throw them) and by the last day she was approaching Matthew’s level. I was able to meet her along with her fellow ball folks before the last day’s matches and I could see the smile and joy in her eyes. And since she understood much more English than I understood Spanish, I was able to tell her she was doing a good job.
Why focus on ball kids? While I was at the tennis matches I was incommunicado with the outside world. It wasn’t until the ride home did I hear about the events at the school in Connecticut today. It wasn’t until I reached home and turned on the TV did the magnitude of what happened really hit me.
The children who did not survive today will miss out on so much. They should be enjoying the simple pleasures of life, such as being a ball person at a tennis tournament.
I just hope Matthew’s parents know to give him a big hug when he gets home tonight. I hope the pretty Spanish girl also gets a big hug from her parents every day.
The events of today definitely put perspective on the importance of tennis matches in our lives. Today reminded us what is important in life. At the next professional tennis match you attend, if you have a chance, thank a ball person who has done a good job. And as you are thanking them, remember those who will never get that opportunity.
By David Foster