Savannah Sousa is having the time of her life. She just can’t let her face show it.
The former No. 1 singles tennis player at Freeman High is taking a two-week break from her junior year and her own game to help cater to some of the biggest names her favorite sport has to offer.
Sousa is a “ball kid” at what used to be the Indian Wells Masters – a huge tennis tournament better known as the BNP Paribas Open – in California’s Coachella Valley near Palm Springs.
If you’ve ever watched a tennis tournament, you’ve seen the ball kids. They’re the ones who toss players a fresh ball or show up with a towel. Aside from that, they are trained to be as invisible as a human being can be in a stadium that seats more than 16,000 fans.
“This has been so much fun,” Sousa said. “It can be a bit nerve-wracking. You aren’t allowed to have an opinion. You aren’t allowed to smile or interact with the players or you will be removed. You have to be like a statue. But you’re right out there on the court with them. You get by balls all the time and that can hurt – it comes at you at 135 miles per hour.
“But it’s been such a great experience! We have the best seat in the house. And we have up-close interaction with the players.”
For the average tennis fan, Indian Wells is one of the best-kept secrets in the game.
Only Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York, seats more people for an outdoor tennis tournament in the world. And for an outdoor tournament in March, there may not be a more pleasant spot than Indians Wells Tennis Garden.
Monday night, the venue exploded onto the front pages when Venus Williams beat her younger sister, Serena.
“I wasn’t on that court,” Sousa said. “I was on another court with a big doubles match that was a lot of fun to work.
“It’s been a great learning experience”
For a young tennis player, the chance to share a court with the best players in the world is invaluable. Sousa may look like a statue on the outside, but on the inside she’s been like a sponge, taking in as much as she can.
“It’s been so good for me to see what these pros have to do to be where they are,” she said. “You see just how hard they have to work to maintain there game. There is an area just outside the stadium where they go to work on their footwork. And where they go to get in their running.
“It’s a little bittersweet. I don’t want this experience to end but at the same time I can’t wait to get home and get back to work on my own game.”
There’s been the chance to rub elbows with her favorite player, Victoria Azarenka, even though ball kids are forbidden to ask for autographs or attempt to engage with players.
Still, there are interactions. Many players make sure to thank the ball kids for all they do during a match. And there are some interesting situations.
“I was working a match with an Italian player,” Sousa said referring to men’s singles player Thomas Fabbiano. “I brought him a towel and he wouldn’t let me hang it behind the scoreboard the way we’re supposed to do it. He only wanted it left hanging on his chair.
“And he only wanted me to throw balls to him with my left hand, which is a challenge for me because I’m a righty. It got to be kind of funny because I got worse as the match went on.”
Sousa fell in love with the game at an early game — in part, she admits, because the outfits looked pretty cool.
Since then, however, it’s the game that holds her enthralled.
“There are times when I will wake up in the middle of the night and find her sitting in front of the television watching a match,” her mom, Jennifer, said. “I’ll ask her ‘What are you doing?’ She’ll just say ‘It’s tennis!’”
At Freeman Sousa’s game earned her the No. 1 singles spot.
“I would get pretty down on myself when I lost,” she said. “I’ve learned to be more mentally tough in my game. Watching these pros has really reinforced that. You can’t afford to let an opponent inside your head. You have to be tougher than that and you have to be outwardly more poised.”
This year, she says, she’s going to stick with training with her teaching pro at the Spokane Club and playing club tennis.
The opportunity to work at this tournament presented itself a few years ago and the shift from Freeman to a home-schooling program allowed her the flexibility to devote the time necessary to make it work.
It’s more than one would think.
There’s a training weekend in January and a pre-tournament tournament for players looking to qualify for the big event.
The experience has been well worth the effort.
“I’m already planning to come back next year,” she said. “And my little sister is ready to come join me. It will be lots of fun.”