“The players will laugh with you and the other ball kids will have a laugh afterwards,” she said.
This year, Maddie’s sister, Lucy, 12, will be a first-time ball kid. Watching Maddie do it, it looked like fun, Lucy said. “I’m kind of nervous but I’m really excited, too.”
The later scheduling of the 2021 Open due to the COVID-19 pandemic means the two-week event coincides with the beginning of term one at school.
Ball kids manager Elise Mace said both the Education Department and each child’s principal had to approve them missing a few school days a week.
There are a record 380 ball kids this year and their age range has expanded to 12 to 17 years, compared with 12 to 15 last year, so there will be kids with more experience.
Ball-kid training usually begins in June but the lockdown meant it was pushed back to early January this year.
Among COVID-safe measures, ball kids will be allocated to one of three lounges across Melbourne Park, instead of one big lounge.
Kids will no longer handle players’ towels or drink bottles. They will handle tennis balls as normal but will be encouraged to use hand sanitiser. They don’t have to wear masks.
Ball kids aren’t paid but get a daily allowance for food and transport and keep their uniform (designed by Ralph Lauren) and other goodies, which last year included Apple AirPods, gift cards and backpacks.
Ms Mace said they were told to “hold on to your hats” because members of the public had tried to pinch the legionnaire-style cap with side flaps. “They’re hot property,” she said.
Maddie and Lucy’s father, Paul Higgins, said he had been concerned about the COVID-19 risks and about Maddie missing classes. However, ball kids learned a lot, including commitment, confidence and concentration.
“They’re real-life skills. If you’re tired, you get on with it, go back the next day and do it again,” Mr Higgins said. This year, Maddie had been chosen as one of 20 “ball kids leaders” so she would be a mentor, too.
Maddie said it was at thrill to mix with famous players.
“It’s crazy and surreal seeing them up close after you’ve seen them on TV,” she said. “And walking on to court with the huge crowds at Rod Laver Arena was really amazing.”
But she also loves hanging out with the other ball kids. “That was one of my favourite parts about it and one of the reasons I wanted to come back this year,” she said.
Carolyn Webb is a reporter for The Age.