x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A fine racket to get involved in

It's funny how hardly any of us notice the ball kids when we plonk ourselves in front of the telly to watch a tennis match.

It's funny how hardly any of us notice the ball kids when we plonk ourselves in front of the telly to watch a tennis match. Although I'm not a hard-core tennis maniac, everyone is usually game for an excuse to recline on the sofa, pleasurably wolfing down popcorn while someone else sweats it out on the court, thwacking a ball around. At the Clark Francis Tennis Academy, where I play, my coach VJ asked me last year if I would like to be a ball girl in the Dubai Tennis Open.

Without giving it more than a second's thought, I eagerly signed up. I would serve the likes of Nadal and Hingis, standing on centre court right where all the action was. I was excited, sure, but didn't think it would be much of an effort. Hand a couple of balls to a few superstars, enhance your CV considerably, and at the worst, fetch the players' icky, sweaty towels. (I did fetch someone his towel - Roger Federer! He might even have bestowed a smile or a word of thanks upon me if I hadn't been holding it so gingerly.)

I conceived it to be a fairly simple job, but was taken aback when the month of training began. We were taught to throw a ball in the straightest direction possible, roll it quietly so as not to disturb the players, how we should step out and behave when the player demands a ball, and finally, how to enter and exit the courts. Numerous drills and exercises followed, efficiently conducted by Clark Francis, the founder of the academy, and other coaches in the sultry afternoon heat.

Since all of us were familiar with the nuances of tennis, we took care how we should react between points. It was necessary to pay continuous attention to the scoreboard, and you would never be able to show your face in public again if you threw a ball to a player when it was his opponent's serve. As Clark was quick to remind us, television cameras had once caught a ball kid leisurely picking his nose, broadcasting the scene to the world.

One of the most difficult instructions to follow proved to remain neutral on the court, and it was all I could do to stop myself cheering after a set was won. We were asked to form teams based on where we lived and our respective schools, so we could arrange carpools. I hunted down my schoolmates - then the students of Dubai International Academy. Our team captain, Aahan, was a patient teacher and mentor to all of us, especially to my slightly stubborn friend Megan, and spent long hours trying to make her learn how to show a ball to a player. She was rather more interested in spending quality time at the Dubai Duty Free gift shop, where Lacoste perfume samples were being doled out.

Our efforts did not go unrewarded. We were provided with an Adidas tennis shirt and pants - our uniform. An identity card allowed us to access any court, any match, and the two complimentary season passes made a family extremely happy - for once my parents grudgingly decided that I was a productive member of the family. My coach, VJ, was not pleased when he saw me devouring ice cream after ice cream, utilising my food coupons to the fullest, but went away when I informed him that opportunities do not knock twice at your door.

When the much-anticipated championship began, I jumped at the chance of missing as much school as possible, spending most of my time at the burrito stall in the Aviation Club. In the beginning, we were on court with the qualifiers, players who were not even certain of participating in the events, with one player having even fewer sponsors than we did. We soon slipped into the flow of ball-kidding. Once, when an unexpected spell of rain drove all the ball-kids back home, Aahan, ever the sincere captain, made his grumbling charges wait for a Women's Open match. It began as soon as the court was dry again, and quickly became a cliff hanger, every game ending in a deuce (for non- tennis-enthusiasts: when two players have a score of 40-40), then a never-ending rally, and finally advantage to one player, then another deuce.

Our group was unable to go off court for hours. The match dragged on and on - until the early hours of the morning and the yawning ball kids were finally herded off. Clark rewarded us by appointing our team to ball-kid the women's semi-finals. Fortunately - or unfortunately for us - only team captains could ball kid for the men's and women's finals. My status got me a seat in the packed spectator's area for the epic battles, and afterwards I obtained autographs from the likes of Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo, Nadal and Mikail Youzhny.

In the Men's Open, Roger Federer secured an easy victory - I like to think he owed it to me, his ball-kid for a match. In some ways, ball-kids have it better than the players: I prefer unlimited access to London Dairy than a big golden cup any day.

Lavanya Malhotra is a 14-year-old student in Dubai.