Photo : Tyler Anderson/Tennis Canada
Ball crew member Chris Adolphe is back this year serving the tournament in his favourite position—running down balls at the net on Centre Court.
The 19-year-old is in his second year as a ball crew captain and seventh working with the tournament (if not for last year’s postponement due to COVID-19 this would have been his eighth). The engineering science sophomore at the University of Toronto says there’s nothing like the rush of adrenaline that comes during a match when running full speed to grab balls and coordinate where they’re going.
“It’s just incredible to have this opportunity,” said Adolphe. “Who doesn’t love having a 130 mile an hour (Denis) Shapovalov serve coming right at you on Centre Court. You can’t beat that.”
Tennis has always been a big part of Adolphe’s life growing up. He bit the ball crew bug when he was preteen watching his 14-year-old twin brothers and 16-year-old sister serve in the tournament while he watched in the stands with his parents. You have to be 13 to join the team and he couldn’t wait to be part of the action.
“I remember watching (my siblings) at the event when they were on Centre Court and I was like, ‘I really want to get into this,’” said Adolphe. “So the following year I tried out and the rest is history.”
As a ball crew captain, a big part of the role is the mentorship of the younger members of the team. This includes monitoring what happens on the court and providing guidance and feedback to newer teammates.
COVID-19 has changed a few things for the crew. In years prior, the towels for the players and umbrellas used in between changeovers for the players would all be run by ball crew members. Due to new player safety protocol, those tasks are overseen by a different committee whose job is to make sure players have everything they need when they arrive on court and throughout the match.
The primary focus of the ball crew this year is to ensure balls are given to players in an efficient manner and making sure the matches run smoothly.
A day in the life
First thing at the start of the day, the team gathers in a room nicknamed “the jive” located within the Centre Court stadium roughly a one-minute walk from the entrance. The committee heads and ball crew captains gather for a meeting to relay any pertinent info for the day. That session is followed by an overall group meeting which includes committee heads, captains and all ball crew members.
The ball crew group cheer that normally ends these sessions and gets the crew and sometimes fans on Centre Court pumped for the day is of course on pause due to COVID-19 protocols.
“It usually requires us to be really close to one another where we sort of do a little chant,” said Adolphe. “Sometimes we do it outside right at the front gate to get all the fans excited and fired up for the day’s match. Unfortunately, we can’t do that this year.”
The crew then shifts into what they call team competitions which determine which ball crew gets to choose the first matches. Games such as rookie roll off where new ball crew members roll dice to determine their teams’ fate for the day can get very intense. On the last day of the tournament, teams hold an event called fing, fung fooey, a version of rock, paper, scissors that Adolphe admits gets pretty heated as well.
“I’ve got to say it’s one of the most intense competitions I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Adolphe with not even a hint of a smile.
There are six members of the ball crew on court at a time, serving in three different positions: Two people running the net, two people on what’s called the “towel side” or “TV side” (because they get the most on air time at the back). Then there’s the “non-towel” side which is the other back position that doesn’t get as much television time.
There is always a ball crew captain on court who is there to speak with the umpire and coordinate efforts should there be any problems on court. There are usually 12 to 13 members per ball crew team. This year there are four teams for a total of 49 members. In previous years there were six teams or 78 ball kids in total.
It was a tough summer for Adolphe last year not being able to participate in the event, so when he got the email in July saying the tournament was back on, he was filled with excitement. For him, the main draw to the tournament is mostly the family atmosphere the ball crew has cultivated over the years and of course the opportunity to see the greats like Nadal, Federer and Djokovic in action.
“We’re quite a close family and we’ve developed a strong bond with each other,” said Adolphe. “Even though it’s only a week-long event, it’s a week I look forward to the most throughout the year. Also, because of my love of tennis, through ball crew, I’ve had the opportunity to watch and learn from the best players in the world.”