Translation of Shad Powers’ article, published in the Desert Sun on March 17, 2022
He heard all the lines, was compared to Kramer in a famous episode of “Seinfield”, but the 57-year-old Jim Novak takes his job as a ball boy very seriously at the BNP Paribas Open. “Yeah, I’ve heard people say things like” Are you sure you’re eighteen? “ said Novak, one of about sixteen adult ball boys attending the Indian Wells tournament this year. “I understand it’s something you don’t see every day and my friends think I look too serious, and indeed serious I am, but I also have a lot of fun.” Novak has recently retired, He was working as Deputy Superintendent of Finance for the School Districts of Palm Springs and Desert Sands and says that his story as a ballboy began as a spectator at the last BNP Paribas Open, held in October.
Due to multiple factors, including vaccination requirements and travel restrictions, the tournament had run out of ball boys. It was easy to see on the playing fields that many matches had only four ball boys available, instead of the usual six. The required age, which in 2019 ranged from 14 to 21, has therefore been extended to plug the holes. “My husband Luke and I were watching a game in October and there were only three ball boys, so a supervisor had to help out. I told them, a bit as a joke, that if they needed volunteers we could help them. “ says Novak. “And in January the tournament actually let it be known in an email that they would take the adults as well. So I said to him: “Do you want to do it?” and he: “No, I wouldn’t say so.” then I said: “Do you mind if I go?” he told me to try and so I did. “
Juan Garrido, one of the tournament’s ball boy coordinators, said the inclusion of adults among the ballkids was necessary.: in 2019, the last year in which the event had no shortage of staff, there were about 330 ball boys on the list, while in October the number had almost halved. This year they are back around 200 again, which always guarantees the possibility of having six ball boys on each court. The adults who came forward helped fill the void, as well as the fact that both they and the spectators liked it; therefore, Garrido rated the solution as extremely positive. With two close events five months apart and without knowing what vaccination obligations there might be, the coordinator predicted that they would be short of kids again, so he also opened the recruitment of adult volunteers with the email that Novak had read in January.
“In the space of three days we had had over a hundred requests, when we expected ten.” Garrido was surprised. “And they didn’t just come from California, but also from New York and a little bit everywhere, to which we said there were too many!” Garrido had to contact some of the potential volunteers to clarify some fundamental points: it is not an open invitation to be answered by auction to automatically join the staff. There is a rigorous audition and only a few have all the requirements. Also, Garrido did not want people from outside the state to arrive, who would have to buy a plane ticket and rent a room for two weeks with the idea that every night they would be on the main court for a Nadal match. Once the real situation was explained, the interested parties were reduced to about forty. And of that group, after a two-weekend training phase, only sixteen were found to have all the necessary requirements. One of them was Novak and according to him it hadn’t been easy at all.
“It was surprisingly tough. I prepared myself by practicing throwing and rolling the balls: I was convinced that the task of the ball boy consisted only in that and I had trained in the backyard, where I was really good. I thought I’d go there and make a great impression!“ recalls Novak. “What you don’t notice are all the complexities of it and the fact that if you find yourself out of position you risk making a fool of yourself. Kramer. “ The Kramer he referred to was part of the famous sit-com “Seinfeld”, in which the character was an adult ball boy at the US Open in New York. On one occasion, Kramer was too zealous and ended up injuring a tennis player. Novak added that physical preparation represented another requirement: “Basically it’s about taking very short shots and now I wake up every morning with back pain: Although one is in shape, there are small movements that one is not used to and sudden changes of direction with the knees in twist. In the end, you pay for all this. “
But now that he’s been playing a ball boy for ten days, the hardest thing is the mental stress to stay focused all the time. “During every single point and even in training the brain is 100% focused on where to throw the ball, where to position itself, how to help others even depending on what they are doing.” explains Novak. “AND you can’t start thinking about dinner or anything else, because when you do, the chair judge assigns the game and you are banned: «Now what should I do? Should I throw the ball or roll it? ” while you look around for help. “
After that Novak pointed out that it was a pleasure to work side by side and team up with teenagers, a rotating group that changed every day. In a meeting between Elise Mertens and Daria Seville he found himself playing a ball boy with four girls and a boy, all under twenty. “To be honest they treated me like anybody, even if at first they thought I was their coordinator or something.” he says laughing. “Once they understood that I was one of them, they included me in the group. “ Novak added that his stern look while in action should not be misleading: it is his typical expression when he is on the pitch, but trust me, he is having fun.
His friends, many of whom have gone to see him in person or have subscribed to the Tennis Channel, have made several critical remarks: “They tell me I’m too serious, but I replied:« Hey, what did you expect ?! That I give the players a high five ?! “” He was very pleased to be recognized by the people. Several acquaintances sent him screenshots of him on TV. He was even recognized by people he didn’t know, not when he was wandering in the fields. He tells of when one day he was eating at a table and three women came up to him and asked him what work he did. Once he found out, they showered him with questions. They asked him what his next match would be and then they went to watch him bounce and pass the balls. “The funny part of the story was the next day when I arrived at the tournament with a couple of friends and my husband, and as soon as we walked in the three women started screaming like I was a celebrity.” recalls Novak amused. “I felt important among my friends and they laughed about it.”According to Garrido, Novak has only received excellent feedback. “From day one of training, Jim was the most positive of all. You said “Jump!” and he asked how high, you said “Run!” and he asked how fast. Guys love working with him. I just felt a lot of good about him and when he could he helped and guided the younger ones. It was a pleasant discovery for our team, someone you can always count on ”.
Garrido added that it is still early to say whether adult ball boys will be needed for the 2023 edition, as in a perfect world they would already be complete with the group of boys between 14 and 21 years old. However, after this two-tournament experiment, Garrido won’t hesitate to call adults should he serve. As for Novak, he obviously knows he is helping out as a substitute, but now that he has had a first taste he will be happy to help him as long as he can. “I told the organizers that I am here to help if needed and I can always improve. If they don’t need me, just say so. If I’m short of guys, I gladly do it and I enjoy it. “ Novak said. “If there were to be a greater turnout of young people and there were too many, it would be okay.” And he concluded that the experience had only one downside: “Unfortunately, I will no longer be able to look at a tennis match with the same eyes as before, because I will spend all my time following the ball boys.”
Translation by Lorenzo Andorlini