Ball kids wake up the French Open

The children line up outside Court No. 1 before the gates open to the public. There are 250 of them, les ramasseurs de balles, the gatherers of the balls. They

Updated: June 02, 2010 07:29 IST
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New York :FEDERER.jpgThe children line up outside Court No. 1 before the gates open to the public. There are 250 of them, les ramasseurs de balles, the gatherers of the balls. They are between 12 and 16 years old, and they dress in matching shirts and shorts.

A couple of the older ones at the front of the line give a "un, deux, trois." Suddenly the children are running down the brick path toward Court Suzanne Lenglen, about 200 yards away. And they are singing.

"On est les ballos!" the children toward the front shout, and the rest of the pack echoes in sing-song fashion. "De Roland Garros! (De Roland Garros!) On va ramasser! (On va ramasser!), Toutes les clbrits! (Toutes les clbrits!)"

Yes, they are the "ballos," from Roland Garros. They will pick up for the celebrities.

It is a simple song, only three choruses divided by a simpler refrain. But, rooster-like, it serves as the wake-up call each morning for the French Open.

"It's a pleasure for them to do a little show in the morning, to wake up the stadium," said David Portier, who oversees the ramasseurs de balles from a small, windowless office behind a high-energy ball-kid lounge underneath Court No. 1.

But if it was all about the show, the song-and-run routine would wait until the gates open. Instead, the public rarely sees the ball boys and girls doing anything but silently chasing balls, rolling them underhand along the edges of the court, and dutifully offering balls and towels to the players. Their mission is to be efficient, silent and invisible.

That does not apply in the morning. The children run the straight stretch to Lenglen, up a set of wide stairs, then curl to the left. For 10 minutes, they run laps around the outside of Roland Garros's second-biggest show court.

Then they break into assigned groups around the pathways and sidewalks surrounding Lenglen, sorted by which court they will work that day. And they exercise.

Directed by a coach -- an older, experienced ball boy or girl who supervises a particular court's ramasseurs -- they run in tight ovals, hands behind their backsides while kicking their heels high. They do side-to-side shuffles and lunging leaps. They side-step forward, again and again, practicing the underhand bowling method used to pass tennis balls around the court.

They stretch by windmilling their arms and reaching for their toes. And at the end, they lie on their backs, feet together in a circle, creating a star. And they stay that way for five minutes.

"It's a moment to relax, to calm down," Portier explained.

On a recent morning, the exercising came just after the gates of Roland Garros were opened to fans. The ball boys and girls weaved their way between the strolling fans, many of whom stopped to watch, smile and take pictures.

That is why Portier tries to get most of the warm-up done earlier. Not only do the grounds become crowded, but he is worried about who is taking pictures of the children, and where those pictures end up.

"I'm very sensitive, because parents give me the responsibility of their children," he said.

The ball boys and girls, chosen from about 2,500 applicants around the country, meet at 9:30 each morning. They fill part of the upper stands at Court No. 1 to hear Portier makes announcements. When he is finished, the children answer with a "merci," like a congregation answering with an "amen."

Then the children are told their assignments. It is based on performance.

"It's a very important moment for them," Portier said. "I think ball boys know if they do a good or a bad job. But it is in the morning that they learn how they actually did."

Once called, they exit the portal and line up out on the walkway. They have spent weeks training for these days, and it was during one of those training sessions in either 2004 or 2005 that a few of them came up with the song.

It is a melody borrowed from the football team in the film "Remember the Titans." But the words are all original. The term "ballos" has no meaning in French, but it rhymes with Garros and seems to fit in.

"Ooh, ah, gant," goes the refrain. "Ooh, ah, Roland! Ooh, ah, ballos! Ooh, ah, Garros!"

We are the winners, the children call and answer in French, the latest collectors. All the day we will do our best.

The last verse uses names of some of the major players.

De Roger Henin

On ramasse toujours bien

De Djoko Nadal

On ramasse toutes les balles!

Down the path they go. Then the gates open, and the ramasseurs de balles, the gatherers of the balls, are rarely heard from again. 

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