The real story behind the Wimbledon ball boys

The real story behind the Wimbledon ball boys

Wimbledon is back.

But while we're gripped by Murray, Federerer, Nadal and the other usual suspects' jostling for the title, what you might not realise is that just out of shot of centre court there are 70 years worth of facsinating, largely untold stories.

For this year marks 70 years since Barnado's children's charity first teamed up with the All England Lawn Tennis Club and Wimbledon.

From 1946, for twenty years, all the Wimbledon ball boys came from one of Barnardo’s residential schools in Hertfordshire where they learnt a valuable trade to help get them into work.

Being a ball boy was a prized role that often changed lives and with only one third of the schools’ students aged 14 to 18 becoming ball boys, competition to be selected was fierce.

Now to celebrate this partnership in Barnardo’s 150th year, some of the former ball boys returned to Wimbledon to share memories and swap anecdotes about Wimbledon champions, the roaring crowds, and the strawberries and cream.

They also met today’s ball boys and girls as they trained for this year’s Championships and compared notes on their duties.

Meeting the stars

For post-war ball boy, Peter Knight, the biggest thrill of Wimbledon was meeting the players.

“I was a ball boy just after the War. The best thing about being a Wimbledon ball boy was meeting the tennis stars and eating strawberries and cream," says the 86 year old from Twikenham who was placed in the care of Barnado's after his housekeeper mum could no longer look after her boys and the house was bombed and evacuated in the war.

"We also sometimes sold pictures of the tennis stars for 3 shillings!

“One time the American player Dorothy Bundy asked me to have a knock up with her and then gave me her racket."

And it wasn't unusual for the ball boys to have favourites.

Joe Law, now 66 from Elswick, Lancashire, who went to Barnado's Goldings School aged 12 when his mother died and served as a ball boy in the Sixties, says his top player was Billie Jean-King.

“Billie was my favourite player because she was always polite and thanked the ball boys at the end of the match, regardless of whether she won or lost," he says. "I always loved watching tennis and still do today."

Royalty also made a big impression on the Wimbledon ball boys.

Michael Hindel, 69, from Bedfordshire, remembers, “On centre court you would get to meet the Queen when she walked through the ball boy line up to meet the winners. She would ask us how we were and if we’d enjoyed ourselves.”

Keeping on your toes

Being a Wimbledon ball boy was a very important job, and there were some specific ground rules the boys had to stick to, as well as honing their lightening-quick reflexes.

“We had to be fit and agile, able to catch and throw balls, and also have the ability to stand perfectly still on court during play to avoid distracting the competitors," says Barry Hyland, 71, from Suffolk. Barry was in Barnado's care from the age of five where he learned carpentry and joinery.

“The main advice given to us as ball boys was to be polite to players, stay alert and do our best and this proved enough. I had no worries about performing at Wimbledon, and succeeding there helped me believe I could succeed at my trade.”

Meanwhile, it wasn't just tennis balls you had to deal with. Terry Whitehead once had a very particular job to deal with.

"One time I was asked to remove a fly that had gone into the Brazilian player, Maria Bueno’s eye. I remember the whole court fell into complete silence while I did it," says the 72 year old from Preston who served as a ball boy from 1957-1960.

“As ball boys we had ways of letting each other know whether we liked a player. If we liked them, we’d bounce the ball off the floor directly into their hand and if we didn’t we’d try to put a spin on the ball so it was difficult to catch!”

What a funny moment!

While ball boy life required plenty of discipline, it wasn't always complete seriousness on centre court. There were a few giggles, too.

Winston Norton, 72, from Essex remembers a particularly funny incident (although he didn't see it that way at the time).

“I remember one time I was asked to go to the ladies changing room to get a towel and when I went in I saw all these naked bodies. It’s funny retrospectively but it really wasn’t at the time. I survived though!

Meanwhile, Chris Cachrimanis, 74, from East Sussex was part of a legendary match that must have got rather tiring!

“In 1958/59 I was a ball boy for one of the longest matches ever. We ran out of balls and had to run off court to get more boxes of balls. I had a great time as a ball boy and was really excited to be a part of Wimbledon.”

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