Three, two, one: action! On Friday 29 April the ballboys start their work at the Mutua Madrid Open, the vast majority of them are young tennis players. After the weekend training sessions and preparation, now comes the real thing. They will all move around the different courts except for centre court, where only the fittest and more experienced will provide their services.
Before each match a customary ritual takes place: they meet with their coordinator, who gives them their final instructions, they form a line, receive an encouraging pat on the back and jog onto the court, which sets them apart from other tournaments, where they walk on.
They face a maximum of one hour of intense focus, requiring all of their energy, until they are replaced by the next shift of ballboys. It is intense work that provides no shortage of anecdotes: trips, slips and errant balls that end with support from the coordinator, the public and very often the players too.
A few years ago, John Isner gave a t-shirt to a ballboy who was accidentally struck with a ball. The hard work of these boys and girls is also recognised by players such as Stan Wawrinka and the Bryan brothers, who often give the little stars some of their kit.
Other players like Ernests Gulbis, Richard Gasquet and Nicolás Almagro, among others, demand more respect from the ballboys due to their strong characters, although that can change once they get to know them, as was the case when Nico visited the boys and girls in their relaxation room and showed his more affectionate side away from the stress of his match.
If there are so many young players who wish to work at the Mutua Madrid Open picking up balls at the matches, it is not just because of the friendships they build with each other, or that they get to walk on court with the stars of the tour, but also because they have a chance to meet their tennis heroes behind the scenes.
Everyone reacts differently, there are some who are frozen like rabbits in the headlights when they meet them, while others run up and give their idols a big hug and have to be prised away. It is the only time when they can take photos with them and talk to them, so they have to make the most of it.
Over the years the ballboy relaxation room has received visits from players such as Rafael Nadal on more than one occasion, Wawrinka every year, Nishikori, Isner, the Bryan brothers, Ivanovic, Kuznetsova, Kirilenko, Carla Suárez, Silvia Soler, Sara Errani, Lara Arruabarrena, Melzer, Chardy, Tsonga, Benoit Paire, Carlos Moyà, Alberto Berasategui… and, of course, Manolo Santana.
For the 170 chosen from the 500 who sign up for the tests, these 10 days of competition mean achieving a small dream, and who knows if years later one of them will star in a final on centre court?