Ballkids are essential to tennis tournaments, yet some kids do not have the opportunity to take part. As the tennis world gears up for the first Grand Slam of the year in Melbourne Park, Mastercard has unveiled Australia’s first wheelchair ballkid pilot program to demonstrate the potential of wheelchair users to be ballkids in tennis tournaments around the world.
To bring this to life, Mastercard worked with Eleven, creative technology production company Streaker and disability consulting firm Get Skilled Access to design a solution that could support the experience for wheelchair users on the court. Together, a cutting-edge ball holder and collector was created specifically for wheelchair users.
Eleven-year-old wheelchair user and Junior Wheelchair Tennis Champion Sonny Rennison was the inaugural participant. To create the pilot program, Mastercard connected with a creative tech partner, Grand Slam trainers, and current and former world ranked players to support Sonny deliver the role at the high standard required by tennis players at Grand Slam tournaments.
During the program, Sonny and professional wheelchair tennis player Heath Davidson described the challenge that people in wheelchairs could face as they pick up and store balls while on the court.
From there, it was determined that Sonny would benefit from a device to help him collect the balls at ground level and store them while he undertook his ballkid duties on court.
Says Brigham Glaser, managing director, Streaker: “From discovery calls where we understood what Sonny needed to help him collect and store balls, to sound boarding concepts with tennis players like Alicia Molik and Heath Davidson, we learned and evolved to create a concept that truly supports Sonny in the flow of the game. During the design phase, Sonny provided feedback on the initial design sketches and from there we progressed to testing it out on court where we landed on a final design that will be available to everyone.”
Guided by professional ballkid assessor, Diana Sutterby, Sonny hit the court to understand the foundations and skills required to fulfil the iconic role at a Grand Slam. The training occurred alongside five experienced ballkids, each with major tournament experience, covering all aspects of regular ballkid procedures including how to communicate on court, rolling techniques, court movement and how to best service players during a match.
Sutterby saw great potential in Sonny and his ability to one day service a player in a major tournament match.
Says Sutterby: “This pilot is an important reminder that people of all abilities can participate in tennis programs and there doesn’t need to be limitations on who can apply and participate.”
To test the effectiveness of both the technology and the training, Mastercard Ambassador, former World No. 8 Singles Tennis Player and World No. 4 Wheelchair Tennis Player Heath Davidson took to the court to create a live simulation of a tournament-level match.
Says Davidson: “Ballkids are a huge part of Grand Slams and tennis tournaments, however there are some kids who would love to be involved but don’t have the opportunity to take part. I’ve always wondered why kids in chairs can’t be ballkids, and this pilot demonstrated how feasible that could be. Hopefully this can be a starting point for those dreams to come true, demonstrating the potential future of tennis events.”
Says Sonny: “I have never seen a wheelchair ballkid before, so I thought it would never happen which made me sad when I was younger. I am excited and thankful to have this opportunity and to hopefully encourage other kids in wheelchairs who might want to be ballkids but didn’t think they could, like me. I hope we can show them that nothing is impossible and to keep pursuing their dreams.”
Mastercard and its partners are building on this commitment by making the ball collector, holder and learnings from the pilot available to tournament organisers and tennis fans around the world, with anyone with a 3D printer able to produce the technology that was developed. The files are available via https://www.priceless.com/sports/product/188439/mastercard-open-ballkid/2092/78.
Says Richard Wormald, division president, Australasia, Mastercard: “With this initiative Mastercard is championing inclusivity on the court. Mastercard would love to see this technology and the programs learnings brought to tennis tournaments around the world, so that everyone who is passionate about the sport feels like they belong.”