They’re ace: Australian Open serves up a record number of ball kids

Working with elite tennis players such as Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Ash Barty last year was “crazy and surreal”, says 15-year-old Australian Open ball kid Maddie Higgins, but she has no dirt to dish on them.

None of the players she encountered was rude to her at last year’s tournament, her first as a ball kid.

Maddie Higgins with sister Lucy, who will join her this year as an Australian Open ball kid.Credit:Justin McManus

“They’re all really nice. They come up to you and say, ‘Oh hi, how is your day going?’” said the Brighton East student, who is back in the role again this year.

She has some advice for new ball kids at the 2021 Open, which starts on February 8: if you forget to bounce the ball to the player who’s serving, or if you accidentally throw a ball into the crowd, laugh at yourself.

“The players will laugh with you and the other ball kids will have a laugh afterwards,” she said.

This year, Maddie’s sister, Lucy, 12, will be a first-time ball kid. Watching Maddie do it, it looked like fun, Lucy said. “I’m kind of nervous but I’m really excited, too.”

Maddie Higgins (second from left) lines up with fellow ball kids at Xavier College on Wednesday.Credit:Fiona Hamilton/Tennis Australia

The later scheduling of the 2021 Open due to the COVID-19 pandemic means the two-week event coincides with the beginning of term one at school.

Ball kids manager Elise Mace said both the Education Department and each child’s principal had to approve them missing a few school days a week.

There are a record 380 ball kids this year and their age range has expanded to 12 to 17 years, compared with 12 to 15 last year, so there will be kids with more experience.

Ball-kid training usually begins in June but the lockdown meant it was pushed back to early January this year.

A ball kid in action at last year’s Open.Credit:Joe Armao

Maddie and Lucy’s father, Paul Higgins, said he had been concerned about the COVID-19 risks and about Maddie missing classes. However, ball kids learned a lot, including commitment, confidence and concentration.

“They’re real-life skills. If you’re tired, you get on with it, go back the next day and do it again,” Mr Higgins said. This year, Maddie had been chosen as one of 20 “ball kids leaders” so she would be a mentor, too.

Maddie said it was at thrill to mix with famous players.

“It’s crazy and surreal seeing them up close after you’ve seen them on TV,” she said. “And walking on to court with the huge crowds at Rod Laver Arena was really amazing.”

But she also loves hanging out with the other ball kids. “That was one of my favourite parts about it and one of the reasons I wanted to come back this year,” she said.

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