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KEY DATES FOR WIMBLEDON 2017

Qualifying begins: 26 June

The Draw: 30 June

Pre-event Press Conferences: 1 & 2 July

Order of Play: 2 July

Championships begin: 3 July

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News
Saturday, 15 July 2017 16:14 PM BST
Ball boy back on duty, 27 years later
Royal Marines sergeant major on duty on No.1 Court recalls his summer as a ball boy in 1990 READ MORE

 Players who have triumphed on the courts at Wimbledon tend to come back as TV commentators, media pundits, coaches, players in the Invitational doubles competitions or guests in the Royal Box.

But what of the other young figures on court – the ball boys and girls – who look back at their Championships days as a highlight of their youth, when they were part of the super-efficient supply chain for players, steering those balls around the court? Wimbledon.com catches up with Robert Lea, a net position ball boy in 1990 and now a Royal Marines sergeant major, to hear about his comeback in the guise of a service steward posted to Gangway 26 on No.1 Court.

Robert grew up near Wimbledon and attended one of the local schools that annually put forward candidates for duty as ball boys and girls at The Championships. One of the lucky dozen or so from his school sent for a trial to see if he had an aptitude for the task, he recalls three consecutive days of circuit training, agility work and practice rolling balls and standing sentry still (during which several boys and girls fainted), overseen by the legendary manager of the ballboys/girls, Wally Wonfor – who, Robert notes, “was rumoured to be an ex-sergeant major”.

That was 27 years ago, when Robert was in Year 10, and at 15 just a year older than Jennifer Capriati, who also made her debut at Wimbledon that summer. “At the end of each day, a list of names would be read out and people knew not to come back,” recalls Warrant Officer Lea. “The attrition was a bit less each day and those of us still there at the end embarked on training once a week, and then twice a week as The Championships grew closer.

“We had no hats, no water bottles and the uniform was green, not blue. On the outside courts, we worked in teams of four, not six, and we’d do a full match even if it meant being there for four and a half hours.” Beginning ball duty on the outside courts, Robert gradually earnt the right to work on Centre and No.1 Courts, getting a ground-level view of the athleticism of Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Boris Becker and Pat Cash. “Because I was a short kid, I was a natural to put at the net. It was a great experience, even asking Cash for his sweatband and not getting it!”

It was a great experience, even asking Pat Cash for his sweatband and not getting it!

- Robert Lea

At the age of 18, Robert joined the Royal Marines. He travelled the world serving his country, with two tours of Northern Ireland and two tours of Afghanistan, all the while hoping to come back one day to Wimbledon. “I’ve always known of the affiliation between the Armed Forces and the tournament, and I’ve always wanted to come back, but for operational reasons and other work commitments, I’ve been unable to until this year – when I put in my request for leave and applied to work at Wimbledon.”

What was it like returning to the All England Club to report for a different kind of work, though equally well-drilled? “I felt very nostalgic wandering around, seeing the iconic ivy on the walls. There are elements which haven’t changed at all which I remember so well, but it’s also evolved a lot as a venue. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being back, watching the tennis and interacting with the public. There’s been some really good banter.”

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