24 hours ... with a French Open ball boy

Jun 5, 2012, 3:49:13 PM

They are The Invisibles. The "ballos," as they call themselves, are nevertheless an essential part of the Roland Garros' mechanics. Amongst them: Joseph, from Savoie, 14 years old, 4 ft 6ins, with angelic looks and a...

They are The Invisibles. The "ballos," as they call themselves, are nevertheless an essential part of the Roland Garros' mechanics. Amongst them: Joseph, from Savoie, 14 years old, 4 ft 6ins, with angelic looks and a motor-mouth. Follow him for a typical day in the life of a ball boy. Tick tock…

9 am – Roland Garros – Court number 1

They seem barely awake. Understandable, as they are the first to arrive at Roland Garros. They are small, sharp, aged from 13 to 17 years old, and without distraction troop off in the direction of court one. In this batch: Joseph Condemine, 14, perfect diction, blue eyes and a face full of freckles - "a sweet little face, and very dynamic. He’s over the moon" says David Portier, chief of the ball boys. Despite being only 4 ft 6 and 4.5 stones dripping wet, the puniest of the 250 selected kids didn’t need anyone’s help to pass the selection day organized in his native Savoie: "Last year, my mother didn’t want me to do Roland. So this year, I took advantage of the fact that that my parents are separated to ask my dad." A veterinarian dad in whose footsteps this excellent year 9 student hopes to follow. However, to do that will mean having to calm down in class, from which he has been granted leave for the fortnight: "I'm more a fool at school than here. Because here I have more chance of being fired."  

9:45 am – In the alleys – The awakening of a stadium

On court, we never hear them. However, before the doors of the site open, the "ballos" engage in a daily routine: the awakening of the stadium. Jogging to a song from the soundtrack of the movie Remember the Titans. For 10 minutes, Roland Garros is theirs, and it is a privilege that has to be earned. Every year they are picked from over 2,500 candidates spread throughout France. It is a privilege that also implies duties: it is "forbidden to take sides, to applaud or to ask for autographs" notes David Portier. "But as for their tennis abilities, who cares!” “Being a ball boy is a special sport” notes Kevin Le Calvez, Joseph’s supervisor, who is in his seventh year at Roland Garros. “In my time, when I was a ball boy myself, we used to tease each other all the time! It's a real family, a group of friends."  

10 am – In front of the stadium

Alongside Joseph there are fifteen other ball boys assigned to court 2. They don’t change and will take their turns all day, every 25 minutes, for a total of 3-to-4 hours scurrying after tennis balls, depending on their level of fatigue. For his part, Joseph, the darling of the group, has his photograph taken by Chinese and Japanese tourists, with their cameras always hanging at the ready around their necks. Another supervisor passes by, "You're on 2 Joseph! You raised hell all day yesterday with your pal Basil " He answers with all the precociousness of a 14-year old: "Not so much, my friend." Collective laughter. Stretches and races are becoming more serious: they are all lined up, facing the wall, stretching their calves. "They’re going to shoot them" whispers a passer-by to his girlfriend.  

11 am – Court  2 – Start of the first game

"Come on! Yeah, yeah." To the applause and welcome of a manic British man, Joseph enters the court for a match opposing David Ferrer against the Slovak, Lukas Lacko. Smiling, not stressed, or at least not in appearance, he runs to his position. He then assumes the role of these kids on batteries that we see on television, squatting and concentrated on both sides of the net, ready to spring forth into action when necessary. "I'm not allowed to turn my head to watch the game, but I catch it out of the corner of my eye."  

11:35am – Cafeteria - Lunch time

After half-an-hour in action, also called the "rotation", Joseph can go for lunch. In this large cafeteria, with his jolty tray, he meets with his best mate Basil: "He messes about, but he is discreet. I’m the opposite." A group of girls, in the first blossoming of womanhood, are seated at the next table, and can’t help but to listen to their conversation. But Joseph has spotted them: "Here, the girls are annoying, they stay together and are not very pretty." He also benefits from the dessert to pass his opinion on the players, in this instance the French ones. "They are horrible. Some even insult you and tell you: 'Give me the towel small c …'." Basil is more moderate in his opinion, "They are nice but oafish.", but Joseph sticks to his guns: "They speak French, it's so boring. Foreigners probably insult you but at least you don’t understand them."  

Noon– Court 2 – Back to work

After a good meal, and a highly instructive discussion, Joseph heads back to his court for an afternoon of hard work, without sunglasses or sunscreen, under the sun at the Porte d'Auteuil.  

 4 pm - Ball boys' cloakroom - Time for a snack

Halfway through the action, Kevin assesses Joseph’s performance: "It went well for him. Well, at least better than yesterday, where things could not have been worse." Joseph allows himself a few ramblings about the second-round match that he's standing on: "A little bit cranky these two, especially Benoit Paire, right now up against Albert Ramos. He claims a lot of things to the referee even though he knows he's wrong!"  

8. 45pm – End of the matches - Departure

After a good dinner and a final rotation off of the court, Joseph wanders for several minutes through the alleys at Roland Garros, alone, exhausted, but happy with his day. He won't collect any more balls today. "It wouldn’t surprise me if I progress and I go up to court number 1 tomorrow” says the proud youngster, while waiting for his brother. The management team will tell him the next morning that, in fact, he is going down to court 6. Ever cheerful, Joseph takes it well and even aspires to make it onto the Philippe Chatrier court for the second week. David Portier puts it in perspective: "As I tell them all. If you manage to do three weeks as a ball boy at Roland Garros, mentally and physically, you are ready to achieve great things in life."   By Victor Le Grand, at Roland Garros