Towelgate: Tennis needs to remember that ball kids are volunteers

by: Steve Tignor | October 04, 2018

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This summer Tennis Channel re-ran several classic Wimbledon finals from the 1970s and ’80s. Among the finest was the 1977 championship men’s match between Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors.

While the rallies between those two Hall-of-Famers were never less than entertaining, it was what they did during changeovers that left me open-mouthed in shock: The Swede and the American regularly stood up from their chairs, walked over to a water cooler, picked up a cup, poured themselves a drink, sat back down, and drank it.

Hard to imagine these days, isn’t it? The sport has evolved, or devolved, to the point where changeovers now consist of two players planting themselves on a bench and requesting a list of things—bananas, bottles of water, sports drinks, towels, ice packs, restrung racquets, new shoes—that the ball kids feel duty-bound to scurry off and fetch for them.

For too long, the sport has let the relationship between players and ball persons go unregulated. Over the course of the Open era, and especially in the last 15 years, it has been tacitly decided that it’s the job of the ball kids to do the players’ bidding. The most obvious—and gross—example of this is towel-fetching.

It begins when a player makes a face-wiping motion, or jabs his finger in the direction of a ball kid. The ball kid is then obliged to pick up the player’s sweaty towel, bring it to him as quickly as humanly possible, and then, after the player has made the towel even sweatier, have it flung back in his face. Despite the obvious ick factor, and the unpleasant optics of pro-athlete privilege that come with it, the process has come to be an accepted part of the game.

That is, until last week. That’s when Fernando Verdasco finally took that process too far by berating a ball boy in Shenzhen for not arriving with his towel rapidly enough. The video of the moment went viral, Verdasco faced near-universal condemnation, and now, suddenly, tennis is mulling the possibility of regulating the practice. The social-media shaming system works!

Of course, Verdasco isn’t the only player to flash his irritation at a ball kid. Players from the very top of the rankings on down have growled “towel!” at them; angrily instructed them in how to properly unfold the towel before presenting it to them; rolled their eyes and thrown up their hands when they haven’t brought it fast enough; tossed their empty water bottles on the court for them to pick up; and hit balls back at them when they’ve been tossed in their direction too soon.

Beyond those obvious indignities, I’ve never liked the sight of players pointing at ball kids after every other rally, or the sight of a ball person being forced to run madly, with the towel spread out in front of him, to catch up to a player and hand it to him before he gets to his chair on a changeover. Tennis’s image is elitist enough without making it look as if the players have their own personal servants on court.

Its true that competition will make athletes do crazy, angry things. It’s true that they sweat. It’s also true that, with the recent crackdown on time taken between points, a player can become agitated by a tardy towel. But the more important facts are these: The ball kids aren’t paid to be there, and they don’t work for the players. They’re also, for the most part, young people.

While they may not actually mind doing the pros’ bidding, kids and their parents shouldn’t have to fear that volunteering to be a ball person might lead to them being berated by a famous person in public. And from a purely practical point of view, the primary job of a ball person is to collect the balls and get them to the players; throwing ad-hoc towel duties into the mix can cause understandable confusion. Over the course of a match, it can turn into a lot of running, too.

What can be done? Here are a couple of suggestions.

-Make it a code violation to disrespect or abuse a ball person. To me, the sight of a player growling “towel!” at a teenage volunteer is a much worse look for tennis than the sight of a player breaking a racquet.

-Make the players get their own towels. They can put it on a hook at the back of the court and walk back there when they need it. OK, you say, but wouldn’t this delay matches even more? The hook system might work best in tandem with a shot clock; if we learned anything from the clock this summer, it’s that players have more time between points than they thought they did.

OK, you say, but wouldn’t it look strange, and break up the rhythm of a match, to have a player walking to the back of the court all the time? It’s true, that’s not ideal, either. But not every towel-off session is absolutely necessary. These days it’s standard procedure for players to call—or point—for the towel after losing a point; it’s a way of settling down and refocusing. If a player has to get the towel himself, he’s going to think twice about doing it when it’s not essential.

-The players can be told that, on changeovers, the ball kids aren’t obliged to do whatever they ask. That doesn’t mean the kids won’t want to help, but it shouldn’t feel like an employer-assistant relationship.

When tennis players walk on court, they carry their own bags. This ritual has been celebrated as a down-to-earth throwback to a pre-celebrity, pre-entourage age in sports. But if they can haul their own bags out before a match, they should be able to get their own towels—and bananas, and bottles of water, and ice packs, and whatever else they need—during it, too. If Borg and Connors could do it, today’s players can, too.

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