‘Heroes of the tournament’: Youngsters training as ball kids for international tennis event in Winnipeg

About 50 young Manitobans are getting training that will give them a chance to be on the same courts as world-class professional tennis players during an international tournament in Winnipeg this month.

Nancy Chappell-Pollack is ensuring the young people, who range in age from nine to 16, are well-equipped to volunteer as “ball kids” at the National Bank Challenger, which will be played on the hard courts at the Winnipeg Lawn Tennis Club from July 24 to 31.

Each match typically includes six ball kids who stand at the four corners of the court and at the net. Their job is to retrieve tennis balls and bring towels and water to the players.

“Ball kids … are often are on the court more than anyone else, which surprises people,” said Chappell-Pollack, who owns Taylor Tennis, a club in southwest Winnipeg, and is also the marketing and ball kids manager for the Winnipeg National Bank Challenger.

“They can be on the court sometimes for four hours — not consecutively, but sometimes in the hot sun,” she said. “They really put their best foot forward every year for us, and they end up being sort of the heroes of the tournament.”

WATCH | Young Manitoba tennis enthusiasts train as ball kids:

Having a ball: Kids train for on-court duties at pro tennis tourney

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Duration 1:51

Fifty youngsters between the ages of nine and 16 are learning how to become ball kids for the National Bank Challenger tennis tournament, which will be played in Winnipeg starting on July 24.

The hardest thing for ball kids may be staying focused on those long, hot days, especially since tennis scoring can be tricky to follow, Chappell-Pollack said.

But “it amazes me every single year just how professional the kids are,” she said. “They know how much is at stake for the players.”

A woman with blonde hair stands in front of netting next to a girl with darker hair.
Nancy Chappell-Pollack, right, is helping oversee a ball kids training program ahead of the Winnipeg National Bank Challenger later this month. (Darin Morash/CBC)

The tournament is drawing about 60 players from around the world to the city, including some big names like Canadian Vasek Pospisil — who won a Wimbledon doubles title in 2014 and reached the quarter-finals in singles there in 2015 — and Britain’s Kyle Edmund, a former Australian Open semifinalist.

Men’s players ranked from 40th to 250th in the world are eligible to compete for $54,000 US in prize money at the Winnipeg tournament, now in its ninth year, organizers said in a news release. The event had to be cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.

Excited, but ‘a little bit nervous’

Mariya Gedz, 11, is among the 50 young people training as ball kids for the tournament. She’s excited to see the international-level competition.

“I like how professionals act and how they calm themselves down when they make a mistake and stuff,” she said.

But the high stakes for the tournament also raise the pressure for ball kids like her, she said.

“It’s fun. I’m a little bit nervous, but I’m also excited,” she said during her training session on Wednesday. “If I mess up, everyone will see it.”

A child runs to pick up a tennis ball on a court.
A ball kid trainee runs to grab a tennis ball. The training program gives young players ‘a really wonderful opportunity to see professionals up close,’ says Chappell-Pollack. (Darin Morash/CBC)

With the pandemic limiting opportunities over the last two years, there aren’t as many young people with experience as ball kids on the courts, but the older ones who have done it before are helping peers like Gedz learn.

That includes 15-year-old Mitch Pollack, Nancy Chappell-Pollack’s son. He says his past experience helped him become a better player.

“It was really cool to be around the professional tennis players. A very cool experience,” he said. “It’s fun to watch.”

Chappell-Pollack says ball kids can see how tennis pros behave on the court, and learn what to do — and what not to do.

“They can be on court watching the professional players and how they reset and regroup, how they carry themselves on court — sometimes good, sometimes not so good,” she said. 

“It’s such a beautiful game, and it just gives these kids a really wonderful opportunity to see professionals up close.”

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