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On Second Thought

A real grass-roots program

Boys, girls get job done at the All-England Club

A ball boy looks on, ready to spring into action, during Day 3 of Wimbledon. A ball boy looks on, ready to spring into action, during Day 3 of Wimbledon. (Oli Scarff/ Getty Images)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / July 4, 2010

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LONDON — Harrison Gower, 15, is a first-year BBG at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. In other words, the ever-smiling Harry, who grew up in the neighborhood, is a rookie ball boy at Wimbledon.

Like all the ball boys and ball girls (BBG is the encompassing acronym), Harry takes his work very seriously. Prior to his first day of work, he enlisted his older brother, Thomas, an ex-BBG, to school him on the precise form of how to deliver the ball when a player calls for it.

“He had me standing in front of a mirror, doing the feedings, so I’d get it right,’’ recalled Harry, demonstrating to a visitor the classic BBG’s posture, an imaginary ball held straight over head with right arm, elbow locked, followed by a slow forward lob the envy of Tim Wakefield. “Very helpful. Form’s important, isn’t it? He made sure I was doing it right.’’

They are nothing if not proper, the 250 BBGs who staff the groomed grass courts of Wimbledon. They are part of a tradition that spans three centuries, dating to the 1800s, when their ranks were made up solely of boys from a local orphanage, a practice that lasted nearly 100 years.

Today, upward of 1,000 boys and girls from two dozen schools — and only those 24 chosen schools in and around Wimbledon — typically apply for the coveted volunteer jobs. Initially identified by teachers in their schools as Wimbledon stock, they next must pass what amounts to an online BBG course, then make the cut from among the top 600-700 applicants flagged by the club. They receive small stipends and are allowed to keep their uniforms at the end of the fortnight.

Anne Rundle, a 64-year-old former school teacher, is the club’s training and administration manager in charge of the BBGs, her tiny office tucked neatly into a corner outside Centre Court. She has been on the grounds since 1969, back to when Commander Charles Lane, a retired military officer, was the head of the ball boys. Girls weren’t added to the ranks until 1977.

“But they were only in the sticks then,’’ said a smiling, soft-spoken Rundle, referring to the courts on the outer edges, far from the prominent show courts, especially the iconic Centre Court. “Honestly, I don’t think Commander Lane felt girls could do the job.’’

Ah, what might the Commander have thought the other day when a BBC camera focused on one ball girl, dutifully going through the paces while sporting bandages on both of her scraped knees? A true, gritty trooper, that one. Girls finally made it to Centre Court in 1985, making this Wimbledon a silver anniversary for the Gs among the BBGs.

The only difference between the sexes, best Rundle can tell, is that the girls conform to proper BBG posture more quickly, while the boys first are far better rollers, more adept and accurate when underhanding balls along the grass in Classic Wimbledon form.

“I suppose it’s probably because of cricket,’’ said Rundle, musing over the boys’ superior rolling skills. “But these are generalizations. At first, the girls look and stand straighter, while the boys are more untidy. But eventually they all get it right. Boy or girl, no difference, really.’’

All the BBGs carry on stoically without a word, dashing for balls that drop at the net, rolling them when needed, handing players towels upon request, or hoisting umbrellas over players’ heads when called upon during sideline breaks.

Ideally, noted Rundle, no one notices her kids, at least not for anything they’ve done, be it correctly or incorrectly. Truth is, they are such an endearing and lasting part of The Championships, it’s impossible not to notice them. By and large, they are the red-cheeked icons of the green grounds, ever efficient, precise, attentive, and silent. In their own way — at least from a tourist’s view — they are as much a part of England as the red-jacketed, black-busbied guards who stand silently and resolutely outside Buckingham Palace.

Who doesn’t watch a Wimbledon match and think, “These kids are perfect!’’?

Well, not quite. Like any bunch of teens, there has been a miscreant or two over the years. Rundle admitted to having to turf some. The fireable offense: chewing.

“Yes, gum,’’ said Rundle. “It’s the rule. They know from word one, if they chew, they’re out.’’ Her school teacher-like stare emphasized that the point is non-negotiable.

Rundle watches the other majors from around the world and is well aware that other countries have different approaches to their ball boys and ball girls.

“Like the French Open,’’ she said. “They are very much part of the razzmatazz. And in the States, too. We think if they are not seen then they are doing the job well. I hope it doesn’t change, really.’’

Abby Hopkins-Flanagan, another 15-year-old BBG rookie, says she loves the job, but it’s a little bit harder than she ever imagined. The hours of standing can be tiring, tedious. Just the other day, during one of the gentlemen’s singles matches, the opponents spiced up their match with some language that made Hopkins-Flanagan want to laugh. But as captain of her six-member BBG team, she held her line.

“Yeah,’’ she said with a big grin, “we have to keep a straight face.’’

To that end, said Rundle, some of her training sessions are spent with former BBGs staging mock tantrums, aimed at desensitizing the kids to potential player outbursts. Editor’s note: This would be the part of the BBG Handbook in which the first seven paragraphs begin with the following letters: M-C-E-N-R-O-E. The recruits have towels shoved in their faces, watch former BBGs slam rackets into turf and chairs.

“We warn them what it could be like, so they’re prepared,’’ said Rundle, some of her BBGs on the job two or three years. “That way, if they’re going to cry, they can wait till they get back to the room.’’

Yes, like baseball, there is no crying in tennis, and these BBGs are truly in a league of their own.

“Brilliant!’’ said a beaming Harry Gower, asked to sum up his first fortnight on the sidelines of the world’s best-known tennis stage. “I’ve been texting my brother, telling him, ‘I’m on a good court . . . watch, watch, watch!’ And my Gram loves tennis. She watches the matches here all day long. I hope one day she’ll see me.’’

Whoops, young Mr. Gower might want to rethink that. It’s Wimbledon, and the BBGs, though an enduring and endearing part of the show, are not here to be seen.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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