When Benjamin George was three years old, he spent hours hitting a sponge ball against his basement wall with a kiddy racquet, dreaming of playing against tennis’ biggest stars. This week at the National Bank Open presented by Rogers, the now 19-year-old is hitting with some of the best in the world.
As a lefty, during the tournament he’s been highly requested by players going up against the left-handers in the competition. In a practice session with Anett Kontaveit of Estonia on Tuesday afternoon, George was getting nothing but high praise from the world number two for his performance. As an aspiring pro tennis player himself, George says the experience throughout the tournament has helped his growth and development as a player. He’s hit with a long and growing list of stars in the tournament so far including Alison Riske, Alicja Rosalska, Petra Kvitova, Beatriz Haddad Maia and Martina Trevisan.
“I think it builds confidence being able to play with these top players and being able to beat them at points,” said George. “I think it’s just a great experience. The first few hits were nerve wracking, trying to make sure I’m playing perfectly because I didn’t want to mess anything up. Then you realize, they make mistakes too. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s been really fun and a great experience”
Since most players don’t travel with a hitting partner, people like George play an important role in athlete preparation during the tournament. When he gets on the court he talks to the player and coach to find out if there is anything specific they want from him during the session. Competitors often ask hitting partners to mimic in some way the style of play of the next athlete they are going up against. If they’re playing a match that day the sessions tend to be lighter, spending a half an hour with them helping with warm up, hitting a couple groundstrokes, volleys, a few serves and a few returns until the athlete feels satisfied.
If it’s earlier in the tournament and players in the main draw don’t have to compete for a couple of days, sessions can be longer, sometimes one to two hours. The most challenging aspect of the role he says is adapting to specific requests.
“Typically, male tennis players hit with more topspin than female players do, so it’s trying to play flatter, less rotation on the ball,” said George. “Some of the (players) may want a specific ball depending on who they’re playing. Maybe they want it flatter, maybe they want more spin. It’s kind of fitting to what the player wants. You kind of have to adapt and change your game based on who you’re hitting with.”
One of the most amazing moments for him so far was walking onto the practice court with living legend Venus Williams who he’s been able to hit with twice.
“This is probably the last time she will play here,” said George. “It’s probably the last time I’ll ever see her live and I got to hit with her. She’s one of the best athletes of all time, so that was a really cool moment.”
From Richmond Hill, Ontario, George has played at several clubs in the GTA throughout the years. He just finished his second year at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where he competes on the varsity squad and majors in business analytics.
George had some busy days in the early part of the tournament spending up to four or five hours on the court. The scheduling committee lets him know his assignments for the day and he arrives about an hour before the first hit. After grabbing something to eat, and getting a warmup in, he heads to the court. After a session, he cools down, stretches and watches some matches before re-warming up to go back out on the court with a player. The schedule fluctuates based on requests. Bookings often change due to weather and other factors, so George stays flexible.
As a huge tennis fan, some of George’s most special moments of NBO22 have been off the court, in the Player’s Lounge, grabbing lunch and rubbing shoulders with the world’s best. Through this experience he’s been able to #FeelTennis in a whole different way.
“Being a hitting partner is quite different from being a fan,” said George. “You’re on the changeovers, you’re getting water, you’re talking to them, not just standing there waiting for an autograph. You’re talking about how their day has been, how their flight was, how past tournaments were, and then you’re actually hitting balls with them.
“In the Player’s Lounge and the Player’s Restaurant they’re all right there beside you. They’re coming up to talk to you. They’ve become more like normal people to me. At first there were nerves because these are world class athletes, and then you realize that they’re just regular people.”