Wimbledon 2013: Urgency and standing still – the essential BBG skills

There are many perils for a ballboy or ballgirl at Wimbledon but the risks of being smacked in the head by a 140mph serve or bulldozed by a player this week are far outweighed by the prestige of playing a key role at the Championships.

There is fierce competition to earn a place in the programme. The process begins in September of the previous year, when the All England Club liaises with 30 local schools. More than 1,000 youngsters aged 14 to 18 apply, with each school having a quota on numbers; but only 250 make the final cut.

"They are all fully aware of how prestigious it is and what a great opportunity they've got, also how difficult it has been for them just to make it to the training programme, let alone still to be there at the end of it," says Sarah Goldson, manager of the ballboys and girls – known as BBGs – who are paid only their expenses. "Whatever court they are on we expect a high standard, whether Centre Court or any other."

The key for any BBG is to blend into the background, not to be noticed and to ensure there are never any stray balls flying about. Sometimes, however, becoming part of the action is unavoidable. In 1995 Tim Henman and Jeremy Bates were disqualified from the men's doubles after Henman walloped a ball in frustration and it accidentally struck the head of a ballgirl. Two years ago a ballgirl collapsed during a match between Vera Zvonareva and Alison Riske, while in 2009 momentum took Michael Llodra crashing into a ballgirl at great speed.

For the most part, though, BBGs do not stand out, thanks to their extensive training regime that ensures that only the quickest and most capable make it to the Championships. Selection begins in January but being included in the programme is only the start of an arduous process. All BBGs must undergo a written exam which tests their knowledge of tennis rules, before they are put through their paces with fitness and agility tests.

Then the core skills of rolling and feeding the ball are checked, as well as the ability to stand still for long periods of time, before an on-court assessment. Some youngsters make the initial programme but fail to reach the SW19 event.

There is more to it than simply having the ability to stand still and throwing balls to players (with one bounce). BBGs need to know which end the balls should be at, what to do when new balls are needed and how to behave when play is suspended.

The BBGs are then assigned their positions on the court. There will be 40 teams of six at Wimbledon this year, consisting of four "bases" at the back of the court and two "centres" who crouch at the net. They are high-profile roles, with millions watching on television – last year's BBC coverage of the Federer-Murray final was seen by 16.9m viewers, with many more watching globally.

"We emphasise urgency all the time, whether you're a centre at the net or at the back, they've got to be quick," says Goldson. "Especially if you are a centre you need to have speed and good acceleration. Some stand out at selection for being quick but then they might not understand the game as well as others. We're looking for all-rounders."

There is a strict one hour on, one hour off time limit for each group on court and after every match they are rated, given a mark out of five, the idea being to breed healthy competition within the group and so help raise standards.

"All positions are difficult because although centres do a lot of running around at the net, the bases at the back have got to spend a lot of time standing absolutely still because they are in the eyeline of the servers," says Goldson.

"Both are equally difficult and it's very much a team thing, I don't think there are any easier positions. Standing still for three and a half minutes at a time is tough. It requires a huge amount of concentration because a lot of these kids won't spend a huge amount of time standing still, doing nothing for three minutes."

And when a rare mistake is made? "We say to them if they do make an error then they should correct it quickly and smartly. But an error to us the untrained eye usually doesn't notice."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by James Riach, for The Observer on Saturday 22nd June 2013 23.15 Europe/London

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image: © Robbie Dale