We despise tennis pros.
They don't speak to us. They don't look at us. They don't acknowledge us. We mean slightly less to them than mealworm excrement.
And yet, how could Roger Federer have won without us? Or Kim Clijsters? In fact, without us, how could the 2005 U.S. Open have been held at all?
We are ball persons. We fetch their balls, their towels, their water and ice. We stand in the punishing sun and shade them with umbrellas, as if each of them were the infant prince of Siam.
September 18, 2005
And yet do they thank us? Do they offer us high knuckles? Do they tip? No, they do not. We are their appendix--they don't notice us until we bother them.
I know. I was one of the 250 ball persons at the Open, even though I was 30 years older, a foot taller and three ephedra slower than just about everyone else.
Still, wasn't I there for you, Meghann Shaughnessy, on court 9 in your doubles victory? Didn't I bounce the balls perfectly to you, except for the one off your ankle? Didn't I stand perfectly still between serves, apart from that one time when I thought you'd already hit two? You bet your spanky pants I did! And yet when I approached you afterward and asked for your evaluation of my work, you said, "You were out there? Today?"
Your partner, Nadia Petrova, might remember me. I'm the one who chased a ball that wound up in the mitts of a middle-aged woman in the stands. She wouldn't throw the damn thing back. "Ma'am, please!" I mouthed. And she snipped, "We're supposed to be able to keep them this year!"
"Only on the Arthur Ashe court," I snipped back.
That's when I realized Petrova was staring AK-47 holes in me, waiting for me to return to my spot before her next serve. Oops.
My mentor, 27-year-old ball person Thinh Dinh, consoled me afterward with the Question Game. We'd stand in the plaza between matches, in our totally cool Polo blue-and-white ball-person uniforms. People would ask questions, and Thinh would politely jerk them around.
Q: Do you guys get paid?
Thinh: Yes, we're paid on commission. Twenty-five cents a ball. (Real answer: Ball persons get $9 an hour.)
Q: Do you go to school for this?
Thinh: Yes, we go to Ball Person University. It's in upstate New York. (Real answer: Ball persons get a week of training just before the Open.)
I liked the Question Game so much I tried it.
Q: What's the worst part of the job?
Me: Shaving the fuzz off the balls. It gets everywhere.
Real answer: Trying to gather all the balls that are hailing on you from your five ball-person teammates while trying to get the player his stupid towel to wipe his sweat off even though he just wiped the sweat off last point, and then sprinting back to your spot, all in 14 seconds. ("And don't block the sponsor signage!" everyone reminded me.)
Andre Agassi is a pill about the service. "He's nice, but he's very, very particular," says lawyer Gary Spitz, who, at 41, has been ball-personing for 26 years. Pete Sampras didn't like anybody throwing balls behind him. Jeff Tarango gets mad if the ball is bounced to him. He wants it thrown in the air. Sorr-eee.
But the unanimous choice for the pro the ball people would most love to throw under the number 7 train? Conchita Martinez, the Nurse Racket of tennis. "She's rude," Spitz says. "She's all 'Gimme the ball now! No, not this ball! That ball!' She even hits balls at you! When the kids misbehave around here, we make them do one of her matches."
Italy's Giorgio Galimberti ain't no field of daisies, either. I was his chair valet for one set when he suddenly yelled out, "Ice!" Ice? I had no idea. I brought him a little Dixie cup full of ice. "No, no! Ice! For my leg-a!"
For his leg-a? I floundered around for maybe 20 seconds. Suddenly a teammate rushed me a bag of ice, which I was about to hand to him when time ran out. Galimberti waved the bag away with something that sounded like, "Idiot-a!" and limped back on the court. And one set later he retired with leg cramps. Oops.
Afterward, still in uniform, I gingerly approached him in the press area and said, "Do you know me?"
He braced as if I were going to present him with paternity papers. "No."
"I was one of your ball persons tonight," I said. "You don't remember me?"
"No, I don't notice you," he said. "But to be honest, I never worry about the ball boys in New York because they're so good. Very quick. They're always ready for you."
We love tennis pros.
• To see a photo gallery of Rick Reilly's day as a ball boy at the U.S. Open, go to SI.com/ballboy. If you have a comment for Reilly, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was one of the 250 ball persons at the Open, even though I was 30 years older and three ephedra slower than just about everyone else.