It has always looked the most jarring and unprofessional sequence on a tennis court. Players mopping perspiration on a towel before flinging it back to kids, who scramble to catch it and scurry back to their spots. Just a case of supremely entitled behaviour on court. At the Shenzhen Open recently, when Fernando Verdasco harshly signalled to the ball boy that he should hurry up with the towel, even as he stared at a critical juncture in the match, 6-1, 2-4, 15-30, it was the sort of cringe-worthy behaviour that threw all the uncivil tennis stars into sharp focus.
Ball kids don’t volunteer for court-side duties to be glared at or to pick up after sweaty professionals. They’ve not signed up for being at the receiving end of behaviour that universally annoys mothers of spoilt teenagers post-shower. They’re not to be subjected to tantrum throwers who won’t think twice before unleashing their fury on hapless children if the towel doesn’t fetch up soon enough. Nadal, Djokovic and Verdasco have all been guilty of bad behaviour with ball boys and girls. Considered a “dream-job”, it offers the opportunity to watch top quality tennis from the best seat in the arena, to see greatness at an outstretched hand’s distance. The work includes dispensing balls, not holding towels at the correct height for the pro to grab it and hurl back heedlessly.
There’s talk now about asking the players to carry their own sweat-mops (great potential for sponsors) and installing towel racks, though that would pile on the minutes to a match. Most other sports see practitioners walk up to courtside and towel down without a fuss. The tennis establishment should know that the rituals of entitlement are dispensable, they can be done away with, as quaintly ancient as the practice has been. It’s time the sport throws in the towel on a practice that can be potentially scarring for a young boy who could well be on his way to following in the footsteps of a Roger Federer.