Sixty years ago exactly Mr B stepped out into Wimbledon’s Centre Court, trying to control his nerves and waiting for that first serve to come thundering across the net in his direction.
I know you would love to think that he was England’s answer to Rod Laver - but in fact he was one of the much-heralded team of ball boys who, in those far-off days, were all drawn from Goldings,
the William Baker Technical School run by Dr Barnardo’s. They were, Mr B is proud of telling me, the “best in the world” and, to be fair, I have never heard that view challenged over the years. It’s one of his proudest claims to fame
to have been part of the Wimbledon World.
Mr B made the team in 1958, 1959 and 1960. In his first year he was on the outside courts where the boys not only had
to collect the balls and dispense them to the players but also to keep the scoreboards up to date. Their kit was loaned to them, to be given back at the end of the fortnight and they had to supply their own plimsolls (trainers, in those days, were the people
who, well, trained you.) In 1959 he progressed to court number 8 and dreamed of maybe - just maybe - he might make it to Number One, or Number Two court in his third and final year.
When the names of the chosen team went up on the school notice-board in Spring 1960 he couldn’t see his name on the list and his heart plummeted into his boots. Then a mate slapped him on the back and told him he was a lucky so-and-so. He hadn’t
even looked at the list for Centre Court....
Over the years since his Wimbledon Days, Mr B has often waxed lyrical about his experiences meeting the very best
of the world’s tennis players. He has related, in great detail, to anyone prepared to listen (and, to be fair, most people were) the trials and tribulations of the extensive training he and the rest of the team undertook - when he was younger, indeed,
he liked to demonstrate that vital run across the net, bending down as he ran to push back the net and scoop up the tennis ball in one hand, straightening up as he reached the other side of the court. It has been some years since he was able to do this, but
I remember it well. We often used to wonder whether I, a passionate follower of Wimbledon tennis (when my friends and I weren’t actually watching, we would be out on the local park’s tennis courts pretending to be Maria Bueno) ever saw him performing
Ten years ago the Middle of the Darling Daughters contacted the All England Tennis Club to arrange for a special commemoration of the 50th anniversary
of her Dad’s glory days. We were invited to watch the proceedings from ringside seats on Centre Court where Serena Williams was powering her way through to the Women’s semi-finals. Mr B, of course, was paying more attention to the ball-boys and
girls to see if they passed the test of time. He was fascinated to hear that, unlike in “his day”, the ball-boys and girls didn’t take turns at every position on court but specialised in the net, or the outer court. There was also a rota
system so nobody was on court for longer than an allotted time - in Mr B’s day, you stayed with the game until the very last. He was a tad jealous to learn that the present team of ball-boys and girls are given a full kit of clothes including rather
splendid back-packs to keep.
What stayed in my mind, however, was the conversation Mr B had with the 2010 team, nowadays drawn from local schools in the Wimbledon
area. There he was, chuntering on at considerable length about how they should savour every moment, that they would remember forever their days at Wimbledon - and every one of them listened politely, attentively, with the utmost respect for this aged ball-boy
from Once Upon A Time.
Mr B’s final verdict on their performance: “They are almost as good as we were. World class!”
As compliments go, like the very best of Wimbledon, it can’t be beaten.