February is precious for Syed Aamer Asif. Twenty-seven years back in 1993, the 10-year-old Asif was a ball kid at the first Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Now an investment banker in Dubai, the 37-year-old remembers those moments vividly. It still gives him the goosebumps.
“My first big moment was with Thomas Muster. Then later it was a dream to ball kid for Stefan Edberg. He was like my favourite player since forever… by the time he came to Dubai, he wasn’t at the top of his game but it was a dream to be a ball boy during his match. Not only that, I even managed to get his wristband as a parting gift (he lost early unfortunately at the tournament). This was an experience I’ll never forget… seeing Edberg serve and volley in person!””
1993 was the early days of the tennis championships in Dubai. There was no centre court yet, and only men’s tennis to enjoy. “Before the new stadium was built, we had a smaller ‘centre court’ in what is now Court 1. When the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium came about in 1996 we were wild about it, having only seen such stadiums on TV and maybe when we travelled overseas. I remember the ball kids running around the stadium, and just being in awe of everything it stood for. Tennis had truly arrived in Dubai.”
A high point in life
Being one of the first ball kids of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships has been a high point in Asif’s life in Dubai. He fondly remembers the two weeks of the tennis championships as “the best two weeks in our little world,” referring to the fantastic experience on court and off that every ball kid enjoys during this time. “Every year ball kids usually get a room to themselves, with lockers and all. But in 1993, the ball kids literally had a whole wing of the Emirates Aviation College dorm to ourselves. We went wild running across it, used mattresses as slides on the stairs and played hide and seek as well as tag. We were kids and made a bit of a mess, which is why we had makeshift rooms thereafter. From bonding with friends to developing team spirit, prank calling KFC to palm tennis on the pavements, it was truly the best two weeks for us.”
Every year in February the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships features well-trained ball kids who are essential to the operation of any world-class tennis event. What started with 75 children in 1993, under the tutelage of Clark Francis (who still organises the programme now in its 28th year for Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships), has now grown to be a huge operation with 120 kids divided into 10 teams. The children, mostly between 10 and 16 years of age, start training nearly four months before the start of the tournament. They train hard, under the close supervision of Francis, putting in hours of hard work and dedication. Francis, a veteran coach himself and well known in the tennis circuit of Dubai as the founder of the Clark Francis Tennis Academy, has incorporated in the programme the best practices of ball-kids training from Wimbledon, Roland Garros, Australian Open and US Open. He blends traditional ball rolling, catching and passing of balls on court with discipline, responsibility, and leadership skills. Almost all top tennis stars who have played at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships have praised the professional approach of these ball boys and girls, who ensure the smooth conduct of every match.
So, what is a ball kid?
Every world-class tennis event has ball boys and girls who distribute the balls as quickly and quietly as possible, without interrupting the players’ concentration. They run onto the court and in a flash they disappear back to their place again. The basic responsibility of a ball kid is to retrieve loose balls from the court or in the net and send them back to the serving end for team mates to give to the players.
The beginning of the Ball Kid Progarmme in Dubai
“It was Colm McLoughlin (the executive vice chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free) who met me at the Le Meridien on Airport Road in 1993 where I was a tennis coach, asking me to get him some ball kids for the tournament. We somehow got the word out and managed to get 75 kids, most of whom were my students. It was mainly word of mouth. In 1993 no kid had a mobile, there was no Facebook, and no WhatsApp messaging services… we just trusted one another and got the programme going. That’s how the Dubai Duty Free Ball Kids Programme began,” said Clark.
Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free, said: “The ball kids programme launched in 1993 with a vision to create a legacy of giving young aspiring tennis players an opportunity to experience professional tennis firsthand. The programme has gone from strength to strength over the decades with the support of the Clark Francis Academy, and we believe that our commitment to the vision has inspired several budding tennis stars to follow their dreams of playing tennis at a professional level."
Ball kids are a pre-requisite to any tennis championship. “No match can start without them,” says Francis. A tennis player and a ball kid himself in England, he lists the four qualities that are mandatory for a successful ball kid: speed, accuracy, agility and concentration. “You know a ball kid does a perfect job when he or she is not noticed,” says Francis. “The training is much more than on-court skills. It’s about life skills and team management. It builds your self-confidence and dedication and teaches you about social skills, honesty and team work. It’s something that every manager would need to know.” But saying so, Francis also highlights the element of awe and wonder that’s part of the programme. “Imagine being in a stadium of five and a half thousand people, the kids love the vibe and learn a lot about the game.”
Andres Gimeno, Director of the Clark Francis Tennis Academy, says, “the basic thing is that kids need to understand the proper technique of rolling and passing the ball. They learn things that they wouldn’t do as part of a normal tennis lesson. “
Sense of wonder
Asif, who was one of those 75 kids in 1993, reiterates the element of wonder that the programme has for kids. “Oh it’s an absolute dream come true for any child,” he agrees. “Imagine watching Boris Becker play, imagine getting a bandana from Pat Cash. That’s not something a 10-year-old would usually imagine. I have been on court with players, such as
Wayne Ferreira and Petr Korda… it was so exciting to be a part of their matches and watch them closely.” And then there were the lighter moments off court when “we cooled off with strawberries and cream and even hot dogs,” adds Asif.
By the end of their training, the kids, among the many lessons they learn, show respect to their buddy, follow the orders of their captain, eat healthy, rest and sleep well, and focus on studies. Last year for the first time, two ball kids from Dubai, Coumba Ben Mamadou Niangadou and Stefania Bojica, were chosen as part of the 30 ball kids who operated the 02 Masters in England. “This has been a huge recognition for us,” says Francis.
For 15-year-old Coumba Ben, “Being a ball kid has been hugely satisfying and inspiring at the same time. I started as a ball kid when I was only eight years old and am now a supervisor. I’ve seen all the greatest tennis stars on court – from Roger Federer to Novak Djokovic to Stefanos Tsitsipas. I’ve also played with some of them at the tennis clinics here in the UAE. In England last year, during the O2 Finals, Roger gave me his sweat band.”
Being a ball kid also has its stressful moments, as 14-year-old Stefania, another long time ball kid on the circuit explains. “I started on the side courts and then moved on to centre court. I was particularly stressed at one time when Andy Murray kept asking for his towel after every single point.”
Like Asif, for Sefi and Coumba as well, the greatest takeaway from the programme is learning so much more about tennis and life in general and watching the legends in action. Both the girls, who are also tennis players, dream of playing at the WTA one day. “When you see the stars so closely, you realise how well they play and how disciplined they are. I, for one, want to be like Halep. Watching her play, a fellow Romanian, is a huge moment of pride for me and inspires me to reach for the top,” says Stefania.
The ball kids are the unsung heroes of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, says Asif. “We learnt so much both on court and off. There are just so many moments that make this programme so endearing for kids. For me, the list just goes on. Whether it’s coming in to practice as early as 6:30 in the morning and watching Thomas Muster practice on centre court, quietly waiting to see if he would let us hit a few balls with him, or limping around the court with a twisted knee or simply bonding with the other kids, it’s been one of my best childhood memories. I can’t wait to see my daughter be a part of it now.”
Together with the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships that are all set to begin next week, The Dubai Duty Free Ball Kids Programme completes 28 years this year. Once the matches begin, these kids will make sure that Dubai enjoys another memorable two weeks of fantastic tennis.