I’ll never forget my first tournament as a ball girl. I was 14 years old, and I loved every minute of it. From chasing balls to collecting trash, I soaked it all in—much like the towels I eagerly delivered to then players. Little did I know that, according to some observers, I was subjecting myself to a demeaning form of voluntary servanthood.
“We are going to look back at ball kids handling the effluvia-soaked towels of millionaire pro athletes, much as we cringingly recall child labor in the textile mills, factories and mines during the Industrial Revolution,” tweeted Tennis Channel analyst Jon Wertheim in 2018.
A 2017 Sports Illustrated piece described ballpersons as “Roman bath slaves, forced to fetch the player’s sweaty towel and obsequiously hand it over…”
In an essay on the towel topic, one ex-ballperson said, “…you might as well ask children to carry around the player’s toilet.”
Dr. Bernard Camins, Medical Director of Infection Prevention at the Mount Sinai Health System, was equally disturbed. He opened a discussion on sweaty towels and ballpersons with a grim play-byplay of bacterial infection.
“If you’re colonized with MRSA [bacteria], for instance, it’s often in your nose,” Camins explained. “But if your nose is runny, it can get on your skin, which can get on a towel. If the ball person touches it and then touches their nose, it can colonize their nose, and the next time they have a cut, that cut can get infected.”
The collective outrage stemming from players’ mistreatment of ballpersons is equally intense.
During the 2015 Miami Open final, viewers watched in horror as Novak Djokovic screamed toward his player box at the same moment a petrified ball boy arrived with his towel. Fernando Verdasco earned the ire of social media when he accepted his towel from a ball kid at the 2018 Shenzhen Open, only to berate him for his slow delivery. New Yorkers showered Daniil Medvedev with boos when he angrily snatched his towel from a ballperson during his 2019 US Open final run.
While they may not actually mind doing the pros’ bidding, kids (and their parents) shouldn’t have to fear that volunteering to be a ballperson might lead to them being berated in public. With towel-collecting now left to the players—leaving ballpersons able to focus exclusively on their primary job—it may be a thing of the past. (Getty Images)
Infection risk? Child slavery? Public humiliation? Did I actually do this job? It sounds terrible.
To be fair, pros survived without a mid-game towel delivery system for years before a wave of the hand in front of the face, a la John Cena, became the universal sign for, “Towel, please.”
“When it was really humid at the US Open, I used a hand towel and tucked it on top of my skirt,” tweeted 59- time Grand Slam champion Martina Navratilova, who turned pro in 1975. “[Asking for the towel] is nothing but a habit these days.”
Case in point: Greg Rusedski. The former British No. 1, who enjoyed the majority of his success in the late 1990s, is often cited as one of the first players to regularly ask for a towel between points.
“I was always trying to slow myself down,” Rusedski says. “Within the rules, the best way to slow down was to get the towel, so that’s how it all started. And that’s how I became the Godfather of the Towel.’”
The perspiration-related routines of players like Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal, combined with more uniform enforcement of the 25 seconds players are allowed between points, cemented towel service as an essential part of the ballperson job description. According to Rusedski, players never considered the potential “ick” factor.
“I don’t think that ever entered our minds,” says the 47-year-old. “You would change your towel frequently enough that it was never dripping wet.”
As social media amplified fans’ disdain for towel handling by anyone other than the players themselves, the ATP was taking notes. The 2018 Next Gen ATP Finals became the first tournament to place towel racks for players at the back of the court. Then ATP executive chairman and president Chris Kermode cited the “optics” of the ballperson/player relationship as a reason to switch.
In 2020, COVID-19 left tournaments with no choice in the matter. Sweat itself is not a concern in terms of coronavirus transmission, according to Dr. Camins, but eliminating superfluous human contact became essential for ensuring the safety of all parties as tennis returned in August. As such, players at the Western & Southern Open and the US Open, both held in Queens, retrieved their own towels from color-coded bins at the back of the court.
As with most rule changes, there has been an adjustment period. Filip Krajinovic was one of several athletes to request a towel in the early rounds of the US Open, only to be reminded that was his responsibility. Aliona Bolsova sheepishly cringed when she realized she had wiped down with her opponent’s towel by mistake. And, of course, we’ve seen more time violations called thanks to the extra ground players must cover to towel off.
“I think we need to do a little work on that, because I feel like it’s not enough time,” Serena Williams at the US Open. “I feel like sometimes I’m really sprinting to get my towel, and that’s not really taken into consideration.”
“I would like to use it more often [during return games], but I can’t because I’m disrupting my opponent’s rhythm,” added Stefanos Tsitsipas, admitting that his towel routine gives him time to “refresh” and “think about tactics.”
While players may be missing the convenience of towel transfer, tennis fans have rejoiced on behalf of the beneficiaries. “Coronavirus could bring [an] end to unsavory towel duties for ball kids,” a March Times of London headline triumphantly proclaimed. And it may be right.
The recent addition of the serve clock makes the oweling process even more important, with no time to waste. (Getty Images)
Tiahnne Noble, who heads the US Open’s team of ballpeople, says they are “unlikely” to return to the towel service of old. While that may be a victory for optics, it’s not necessarily a win for all the alleged victims. Some of them miss the experience.
“I was sad because towels were a fun way to engage with players a little bit extra and see how they process in between points and games,” said 26-yearold Karolina Lagerquist.
“I never had a problem with the germs of the towel,” said Jacob Sassoon, 36, a nine-year veteran of the US Open ballperson force. “I miss the interaction with the players, which was always fun.”
Medvedev’s aforementioned outburst happened at the expense of 45-year-old US Open ballperson Guy Abramovitz. But having a towel angrily ripped from his hands and replayed ad nauseum on social media didn’t change his opinion on the subject.
“I prefer having the towel,” Abramovitz said. “It keeps your head in the game. Without having the towel this year, your mind wanders sometimes.”
Towel handling may be a thing of the past, which is a shame as I think back on its perks. It really wasn’t as terrible as many fans thought, as evidenced by the 500 to 600 prospective ballpeople who have historically tried out for less than 150 paid positions at the US Open. For that reason, a return to tradition could very well be a win for both players and ballpeople once the coronavirus is safely behind us.
And if you ask the Godfather, there’s reason for hope.
“I think they’d like to speed up play again, so I think [towel service] will reemerge one day,” says Rusedski. “Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it.”