By Fernie Ruano Jr.
When Roger Federer is dripping with sweat and needs a quick toweling off before launching an artistic serve, who does he turn to? And when a pacing Serena Williams is looking for just the right ball to blast with her ferocious serve, who bounces it to her?
That would be Andrea Amortegui, 15, and 400 of her fellow ball kids who are charged with keeping things moving during matches over the two weeks of the 2014 Sony Open Tennis. And despite the critical nature of her temporary job, it’s easy enough to miss Amortegui and her friends, even in their neon-orange and blue-clad Fila outfits. When ball kids are doing their job perfectly – hurrying towels and chasing balls for your favorite player – chances are you don’t even notice them.
On the purple courts, time means everything right until the very last fuzzy ball is served on the final day of the tournament, next Sunday in the men’s final. The ball kids can be anyone from a German middle schooler to a junior ranked player from Weston, FL. Most of them are extremely fit, 13-16 year-old teens who have already proven they can handle the heat and intensity that comes with the “fifth major.”
In a tournament dripping with Latin flavor, you just might see a kid from Colombia, Venezuela or Mexico come to the rescue of a player in need, but he or she could be from Switzerland or Georgia, the home of a high school tennis team which has made the trip down south since 2012.
“I like the feeling of being on the court, I like the environment and being involved in everything going on,” said Andrea Amortegui, a second-year ball girl who is also the No.9-ranked junior girl’s player in the state.
Amortegui has had little time to stake out Federer, her favorite player, because ball boys and girls at the Sony Open are always on the move, from the minute they arrive at the Tennis Center right up until their 10-hour shift is complete, with everything from protein-filled breakfasts and lunches, in between.
It’s quite simple: The longer a ball kid takes, the longer the match goes. And that includes becoming a ball kid. Your application, which is available starting each November for the following year’s tournament on the Sony Open Tennis website, needs to be filed by early February, just in time for a cardio-filled 6-week training program, which leads right into the start of the tournament.
“We want them to be focused on the court; to be part of the match,” said 17-year Sony Open Tennis ball kid manager Marc Adler, who started out as a ball kid himself in 1997. “But not to be the actual, I guess attention zap, you can say.” Adler, along with several staff members, can be found around 10 a.m. each day huddled around 10-colored charts hooked to a side fence in the parking lot as the chatty ball kids wait inside a white tent for their day’s assignment.
“They can really (affect) whether someone wins or loses, depending on how focused they are. They have an influence on how fast the match is moving, because the longer it takes a ball kid to retrieve a ball, the longer the match goes.”
But what’s really behind the allure for hundreds of kids who volunteer to spend 14 days battling the South Florida heat, among other things?
In the case of 14-year-old Miranda Cano, it’s a chance to spend a lot of time with Amortegui, a close friend and training buddy at the Midtown Tennis Academy in Weston; getting up close and personal with the best players in the world also keeps her coming back.
“Just being on the court is definitely a totally different feeling than sitting in the stands,” said 16-year-old, third-year ball girl Cano, who is a junior ranked player (No.300). “You get to physically interact with the players, it’s like you’re right there. You get to help the players with what goes on the court and that’s pretty cool.”
Cano, who is of Columbian/Peruvian decent, has also acquired an affinity for the Latin flavor fans routinely pour all over the Sony Open. “I actually balled for (Juan Martin) del Potro and (Jo-Wilfried)Tsonga once, and the crowd was just amazing. I mean they were all standing and yelling. There were flags everywhere it was crazy.”
“We also get a chance to meet a lot of people here and check out all the cool stuff. I mean, the tournament is always a lot of fun here. It’s why I keep coming back here.”