They pose proudly in front of the National Bank Open information booth.
They are 75 and 80 years old, respectively.
And they often work double shifts during the 10 days of the tournament in Montréal.
Jean Marchi and Gaston Ste-Marie are two of the 1,300 volunteers who help the event welcome, inform and direct the 200,000 ticket holders who pass through the stadium gates every year.
This army of smiling hosts is made up of people like Jean and Gaston. No matter the task, they undertake it without batting an eye, logging long hours and sharing the pleasure of being on the grounds with the visitors.
And they do it all without pay.
They love tennis, of course, but it’s more than that. Liking people—really, really liking people—seems to be encoded in their DNA.
For Gaston, despite the hundred or so hours of work, it’s a weeklong holiday.
“I love people. My job is to answer people’s questions, and I like that. So, I’m not tired when I get home after a long day. Physically, yes of course, but not mentally.”
For Jean, that sense of belonging is even more significant. The NBO is like an annual family reunion, especially since his wife passed away. “When I was working, I would take time off to come here. That just goes to show you. Gaston and I love it. It’s like a second life for us,” he said with emotion in his voice.
While Jean, 75, hopes to work another ten years, Gaston, 80, is even more ambitious: “I told them that at 95, when I have trouble walking, I’ll be an extra in the stands!”
For many of the volunteers, who are also tennis fans, the NBO is the chance to combine business and pleasure. “If it’s quiet and the benches near the entrance are free, you can sit and watch the matches. Especially late in the evening when it’s not so crowded.”
Incidentally, the tournament reserves a section for its volunteers, like the one pictured here, so they can enjoy a few points while on a break.
It’s great to have an army of 1,300 soldiers, but they still need to be given instructions. Two of the generals who coordinate operations are Magali Guilbault (left), head of the customer service committee, and Stéphanie Madore (right), coordinator of volunteers and credentials.
“I can tell you there are close to 32 volunteers who are ushers on Center Court alone,” said Stephanie. “There are 120 on the outer courts, and 120 who work in transportation of all types. There are 103 ball kids, about 60 volunteers who are reception staff and the same number of people in access control and hosts and hostesses. There are 50 people in promotions and information,” she recapped.
Many of the volunteers, from the locker room attendants to the drivers, may be tempted to take pictures of their idols or ask them questions. The same goes for the ushers who see professional athletes and celebrities in the suites.
That’s a hard no.
“When people are hired, they’re immediately told they’ll have special credentials and can’t ask for photos or autographs or talk to them,” Magali explained. “Of course, they should respond if a player starts up a conversation, but they can’t initiate anything. To be honest, we don’t have to intervene.” Stéphanie added: “We often hire former ball kids for the players’ lounge because they’re already used to being around them.”
The volunteers may not get paid, but they don’t lack for anything. They’re provided with a cap, two jerseys and a jacket to protect them on cooler days and in bad weather.
Every day, according to a rotating schedule, they have a meal in the huge cafeteria created on IGA Stadium’s indoor courts. I ate there myself every day, and I can confirm that the quality of what the caterer (the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth) served this week was as varied as it was nutritious.
After the final on Sunday, the tournament invites all the volunteers to a wrap party where they’ll share a toast with organizers.
They’ll recount memories and anecdotes with the satisfaction of a job well done and, of course, promise to be at the next tennis family reunion in 12 months’ time.