Game on: the ballkids getting the 2021 Australian Open over the line

Unlike some of tennis’s biggest names, Marlo Jenkins is thrilled about the effective bubble he will be living in for this year’s Australian Open – his Pascoe Vale home, Strathmore Secondary College, and the arenas of Melbourne Park Tennis Centre.

The 16-year-old ballboy, who has just started year 12, had to gain an exemption from his principal to miss days of school so he could carry out his on-court duties in the delayed tennis tournament that now begins after the beginning of term one. On days when his matches are during the day, he won’t have to go to school.

On days when he is scheduled for afternoon or night matches, Jenkins will attend classes with his schoolmates in the morning, but instead of hanging out with them after school, he’ll head to Melbourne Park, where this year, he hopes to be able to tell his mates he’s ditching them for Rafael Nadal.

While it’s not a strictly enforced bubble, the advice to match officials at this year’s Australian Open to limit unnecessary large social gatherings in their personal lives – essentially a reflection of the Victorian government’s advice – is just one of the many ways in which ballkids, linespeople and umpires will have a very different tournament this year.

Even if Jenkins’s hopes for a Nadal match might not come true, he has form. In 2020, his first year being a ballboy, he was on court with Roger Federer and Ash Barty. And while he thought that was going to be his last open as he had reached the age limit for a ballkid of 15, Jenkins was excited when he learned of Tennis Australia’s decision to expand the age limit to 17 for this year’s Open.

“It’s really cool we’ve been given the extra year to come back. I have a few friends too, from last year, who are also doing VCE now who have come back again,” he said.

To help with the ease of new measures, the 2021 open will have 380 ballkids – the most in the tournament’s history. They are volunteers, but receive their uniforms, merchandise and gifts from the tournament.

Like fans, ballkids will be limited to one of the three bubbles within the tennis complex – Rod Laver Arena zone, Margaret Court Arena zone, and John Cain Arena zone – a preventive step to minimise how far Covid-19 could spread if it entered the Australian Open undetected.

For ballkids, this means being split into one of three special lounges, as opposed to the larger lounge for all kids to socialise in between games in previous years.

Of the new rules, Jenkins thinks the best development is that ballkids won’t have to hand towels to the players.

“Towels were one of the hardest parts. It was awkward running between your place and the player for the towel, not knowing if they wanted the towel,” Jenkins said.

Ballkids will also be spared from handing the players drinks.

Instead, players will have to fetch their own towels and drinks, as social distancing is enforced on court.

There will be more than 800 sanitiser and wipe dispenser stations across the Australian Open precinct, including on court.

Any official who has to touch a tennis ball will have to sanitise their hands before doing so.

However ballkids, linespeople and umpires will only have to wear masks when entering the court – not throughout matches.

For umpires, there will be no handshakes before or after a match, instead, they will fist bump or wave.

Umpires will have their own coin assigned to them to use for the pre-match toss, as part of the organisers’ efforts to minimise touching of personal items.

There will be daily health checks for all Australian Open staff, however this won’t include a Covid-19 test unless they display symptoms, in which case they’ll be asked to isolate away from the tennis complex.

On Monday, Jenkins spent his first day of the tennis year on court for matches in the Great Ocean Road Open and Murray River Open warm-up events.

“I just love it. I’m still learning what areas I can and can’t go into, but it’s just a really fun few weeks and it’s so good they’re able to go ahead this year,” Jenkins said.