This last weekend marked the final days of play at the US Open, which probably means that more than a few of the people reading this sat glued to the TV for multiple hours watching the final two rounds unfold.
Incidentally, I am one of the people who was glued to the TV this past weekend trying to watch as much tennis as possible from the final Major of the year. Serena Williams had her day of dominance on Sunday, and Marin Cilic took home his first grand slam title on Monday. But, while I was watching the US Open, I couldn’t help but think about the unsung heroes: the ball boys. The people who keep the matches moving and keep the players happy don’t seem to garner a lot of attention. When they’re doing their best work, they’re practically invisible; the balls seem to just magically end up on the correct side of the court and the players have their towels materialize out of thin air. Believe it or not, we just so happen to have a program at the PUNTACANA Resort & Club that teaches kids how to be effective in this position and how to play tennis, and some of the people who have worked their way through this program have incredible stories to share.
I would like to introduce everyone to Mr. Felix De Los Santos. Felix is the Director at the Tennis Center at PUNTACANA Resort & Club and is one of the kids who learned tennis through the “bolerito” program at the Resort. (Non Spanish speakers: here’s your fun, new word for the day! It means roughly the same thing as “ball boy” but has so much more style.) Like many children in the program, Felix grew up poor. He used his wages from the program to help his mother pay for their household expenses and used the money he had left over for schooling. While times were tough for Felix, through this program he was able to escape a life of poverty, something he says that he would not have been able to accomplish otherwise. This experience has proven formative for him: Felix says that he wants to do everything possible to pass on this life changing experience to a new generation of boleritos, and he is proud to tell us about one young man in particular.
This is Neo Chaplain. Neo began training at the Resort at the age of 11 or 12 when he showed up to play against the other ball kids without having any idea about proper form for even the most basic of groundstrokes. Naturally, Neo did not win any of the matches that he organized with the other ball boys. Felix, however, saw something special in Neo. Maybe it was because he grew up in a similar neighborhood, in similar circumstances, or maybe it was because Felix could see that Neo was humble and respectful when he looked into his eyes. Whatever it was, Felix took an instant liking to Neo and vowed that within six months, Neo would be able to beat the other ball boys.
This is when training began in earnest, and early on Felix recognized that Neo had more untapped potential than any of the other boleritos. The relationship between Felix and Neo proved serendipitous. Felix taught Neo proper groundstrokes as well as tactics and strategy. Felix’s estimate of six months to beat the other ball kids ended up being way off: it only took Neo three months to separate himself from the rest of his group. Not only was this great news for Felix who had a star pupil to be proud of, but it also proved to work out very well for Neo. Right around this time, Felix spoke with Oscar de la Renta, who asked if Felix had any students who had what it takes to become a great tennis player. As you can probably surmise, Felix had one student in mind. With the help of Mr. de la Renta, Neo was given the opportunity to attend Nick Bollettieri’s Tennis Academy, a selective academy in Florida that has trained the likes of Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, and Serena Williams. While at the academy, Neo received his high school diploma, awards for his outstanding tennis, and a scholarship to The Catholic University of Puerto Rico. Neo is currently attending that university for a degree in business administration and
plays both singles and doubles on the college tennis team.
While Neo and Felix are kindred spirits able to do what they love, Felix wanted me to mention that it takes an entire team of people in order to produce players like Neo. Neo’s story would not have been possible without the help of Frank Elias, Frank Rainieri, Moises and Oscar de la Renta, Maria and Jose Smith, Anita and Bill Parry, the Bianchessi family, Vanderhorst, Fernando Soler, Junior HP, Vera and Shailesh Jain, Jhanna and Carlos Torreira, Margarita Maria Pilier, Paul Anthony Beswick, and many, many more. While tennis is an individual sport, it truly takes a community to foster the boleritos and make the program possible.
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