It is not just players and umpires who will be nervous at this month’s Australian Open.
Spare a thought for the 380 ballkids, all aged between 12 and 15, who have spent the past year at trials and training sessions to ensure the grand slam goes off smoothly.
More than 3,400 kids across the world applied for the roles, with 20 of the final field coming from Korea, six from China and two from France.
Matt Buckeridge – a 14-year-old sports lover from Victoria – is preparing for his second Open and said he was excited about soaking up the famous Melbourne Park atmosphere again.
“I’m very excited. It’s a long wait from last year,” he told The New Daily.
“I had some big matches last year and I remember the first time I walked out on a big court and saw the crowd – I just felt so small.
“I love the atmosphere, though, and being so close.
“It’s important to stay focused because we have a job to do. And the more you do the big games, the less worried and nervous you are.”
The qualification process
The Australian Open might come to a close at the end of January, but for ballkids wanting to be part of the next year’s event, there is little downtime.
Applications are open in February before trials begin in March, as the process of whittling down a big field begins.
“First you go through a Level 1 trial where supervisors assess our skills,” Buckeridge said.
“They look at things like rolling, throwing and our court movement and speed. Then there’s Level 2 and Level 3 – and then a train-on squad gets picked.
“It is a competitive atmosphere. Everyone is there for the same reason – they all want to be a ballkid. It’s still pretty fun but people do watch for themselves.”
The Australian Open says those at the international-based trials – more than 1400 children tried out in Korea – “undertake a rigorous selection process including a selection trial weekend, where applicants go through on-court drills and written tests”.
Once ballkids make it to the training squad, a further six sessions – conducted through the year – follow as they work on ball-handling skills, rolling with precision and the anticipation of players’ needs.
And the preparation doesn’t end there: ballkids then get the chance to brush up their on-court skills at the Australian Wheelchair Tennis Nationals and the Australian Open Wildcard Play-off.
A regular day
Buckeridge and his fellow ballkids begin their day at either 10am, 3pm or 6pm with a 15-minute briefing from officials.
They spend one hour on court and one hour off, although when things get really hot those ‘shifts’ drop to 45 minutes.
“It’s normally four hours on court and four off during a day,” Buckeridge explained.
“You can have a night shift and last year one of the nights I finished around 12.30am. But they don’t put you on the morning the day after if that is the case.
“We’re not near the players off court but we have a ballkid room, which is pretty cool. We can relax there on couches and have TVs and Playstations.”
Ballkids don’t get paid, but they get a food allowance every day, free tickets for family or friends, get to keep their uniform and get an end-of-tournament gift – which last year was a pair of “cool” Beats headphones.
But the best part of being a ballkid, says Buckeridge, is the interaction with the players, who are “very nice”.
As for a tip? “I love Roger Federer – he’s just so great – on and off the court. He is amazing.”