Last month, more than 400 other people ages 14 and up stood in line at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Queens, New York. They were waiting to be called to the courts for the 2014 US Open ball person tryouts.
For tennis lovers everywhere, it’s a coveted position, the equivalent of a batboy or girl in baseball.
“I have one kid who’s been waiting for three or four years to turn 14 so that they can try out, and this is the first year they’re going to. They can’t wait,” US Open Ballperson director Tina Taps says.
While the job may seem glamorous, there isn’t quite as much time in the spotlight as you might think. Sure, ballpersons often stand on the same court as the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal, or Novak Djokovic. The only catch is that no one else is supposed to know you’re there.
Ballpeople are asked to remain nearly invisible, keeping their footsteps quiet and their actions unnoticed. That was one of the many things I learned when I went through a version of the ballperson tryout myself.
I’ve played baseball my entire life. When Assistant Director of Ballpersons Cathie Delaney told us we would have to be able to throw the length of the court, I thought, big deal. But running with quiet feet? Staying as low to the ground as possible? Those things were going to be problematic.
Ten-year ball boy veteran Joe Laskowski told me he still gets butterflies in his stomach when he steps on the tennis court at the US Open. So as I stood at the net with my hands behind my back, a first-timer trying out to be a ball person, I waited for that queasiness to set in.
I knew the feeling well. It had hit me countless times while waiting for a pitch in a curveball count, or seeing a leadoff hitter take a peek down the third-base line, weighing his chances of dragging down a bunt.
But this was different. I was out of my realm of comfort on a tennis court. Maybe that’s why the butterflies were holding back. Joe hit the ball and it sailed over the net. I was halfway onto the court before realizing I didn’t need to get that ball. “Don’t anticipate,” Joe said. And then came the butterflies.
I pictured myself running to pick up a ball, getting my foot caught in the net, and falling flat on my face to the amusement of everyone watching. I heard Joe’s advice in the back of my head.
“If you’re trying out for the net, always try to be as quick as you can,” he said.
But not too quick. I could hear my footsteps crashing loudly against the clay court and my heavy breaths echoing.
After a few false starts and what were some definitely-too-loud sprints alongside the net, I got through that part of the tryout without severely embarrassing myself.
Next up were the back tryouts, and Delaney asked me to throw three balls as fast as I could to another ball person on the opposite end of the court. After the third, she asked me what I was doing during the US Open. She was offering me a job.
For the Love of the Game
I wish I had tried this five years ago when I was younger and faster. What an awesome experience it would have been to watch some of the greatest tennis players ever from the best seats in the house. Well, I guess you’re standing, but still.
Taps made the experience sound even better when she talked about aspiring young ballpeople.
“Tennis for kids is amazing now,” she said. “Kids today can learn and start playing so well so fast. Once they become players, they come to the Open, and they want to see their heroes out there playing.”
Hearing from someone who has stuck around as a ballperson for so long proved what a worthwhile experience it is. Though Joe may always be stuck with the butterflies in his stomach, he’ll also always have the memories.
“Whether it be a field court or in one of the big three stadiums, it’s always a pleasure to walk on the court with my crew and work on any match,” he said.
For veteran ballpeople, it seems that the glamour of the job doesn’t necessarily come from being in the spotlight or meeting the stars. Instead, it comes from simply being a part of a beautiful sport.
Photos: USTA, Shannon Stapleton/Reuters