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The ball's in their court

PRINCE FREDERICK
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MEET The ball boys at the Chennai Open, who enjoy watching the players both on and off court

TENNIS, UP AND CLOSE P. Narasimhan with the ball boys at the Chennai Open PHOTO: R. RAGU
TENNIS, UP AND CLOSE P. Narasimhan with the ball boys at the Chennai Open PHOTO: R. RAGU

V . Subramaniam is 42, but still a boy. A ball boy, to be precise. He has not missed a single Chennai Open, since its inception in 1997, and has passed on tennis balls to generations of players, from Boris Becker to Xavier Mallisse. He is among a clutch of ball boys celebrating 15 years at the Open.

Members of this elite group work in various fields, but the desire to watch great tennis stars at close quarters drives them to the SDAT Tennis Stadium in Nungambakkam for this annual tournament.

For Aircel Chennai Open 2011, auto-drivers E. Sekhar and Rajesh, both 32, considerably cut down on their time on the road and turn out at the stadium much before match time. R. Selvaraj, a supervisor in a company providing travel services, takes permission to perform his duties at the courts.

Thanks to such dedication, these men are full of happy stories. “Becker gave me a T-shirt,” says a proud Rajesh. Murugan (30), who also holds the 15-year-record, is all admiration for Carlos Moya because, after victories, he would thank ball boys as if they contributed to his success. Another voice talks about Paradorn Srichaphan's magnanimity — “if you assisted him during practice, he'd give generous tips.”

Not all rewards can be quantified. Murugan and Subramaniam, who work at different tennis coaching centres, consider the chance to be ball boys a reward in itself. They are thankful for the huge advantage they have over the fans. Not only do they watch players when they are engaged in spirited duels from a close range, but also during their lighter moments off court.

Moya is voted as the most happy-go-lucky of the lot. Almost everyone remembers the mirth with which he went on an elephant ride. Srichaphan is talked about as being highly spiritual. Becker is singled out for his equanimity.

Most importantly, they know what each player expects of them, while on court. One says how a top player is unsettled by the sound of balls being passed behind him. P. Narasimhan, who has been managing line umpires and ball boys, says ball boys have to be very disciplined and they are coached in etiquette and protocol a month before the tournament begins.

This training gives balls boys such as Murugan and Subramaniam, who hold jobs at tennis coaching centres, an edge as they can serve as secondary coaches.

PRINCE FREDERICK



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