Why Chasing Balls at the US Open Is Serious Business
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Behind the scenes at the U.S. Open, ballpersons wage their own fierce competition to win their chance to participate.
By Leslie dela Vega
Coordination, agility, stamina, attentiveness. These are the qualities you’ll need to qualify for the U.S. Open Tennis Championships in Flushing, Queens, in New York City. Once you’re in, you need focus, determination and speed. No, we’re not talking about the tennis players who take the court each summer; this is about the ones fetching all those balls. Cue the ballpersons.
How many times have you watched a match with the greats — Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Chris Evert — and found your eyes fixed on the people kneeling by the courts retrieving dead balls, or the ones at the corners running after the missed shots on an ace?
Ballpersons — they insist you not call them “ballboys” or “ballgirls” — are an essential part of a pro match. They run, kneel, bend, throw and roll. They are some of the unsung heroes of tennis. Every year, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) holds tryouts for ballpersons a few weeks before the U.S. Open, held at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in late August through mid-September. This year, a minimum of 800 courageous souls registered to try out for the few coveted spots in this iconic New York event.
Hopefuls ages 14 to 60 (and older) waited in line on a hot summer day to get their chance. First-time applicant Ryuichi Nitta, 15, and his mother, Meg, were two of the first 400 in line. “I heard the line would be long, so I got there pretty early and waited for about three hours, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds,” says Ryuichi. What motivates them to wait in line for three hours to compete with hundreds for a chance to work long days in grueling heat and sustain very sore muscles? Knowing that they’ve landed the coolest summer job ever, basically. And there’s this: They can stand just inches away from their favorite tennis superstars. To hear it from Tina Taps, longtime director of U.S. Open Ballpersons, “This is America. Anyone has the opportunity. And with age, there are no boundaries.”
Taps is present through it all. She observes the tryouts, checks in continuously and stays from morning to night each day of the event. Most recently, we caught her buying a pizza at 11 p.m. from one of the vendors at the food village. “This is for some of the kids,” she says.
After tryouts and qualification matches, the lucky chosen ones will receive full head-to-toe uniforms, an hourly wage and the chance to work near the world’s top-ranked players. They are told to come to training for at least four days, for four hours each day. Ryuichi commuted from the Bronx to Queens to attend training every day for two weeks.
Starting this year, the Open is finally joining other Grand Slam tournaments in having ballpersons roll the balls to their colleagues, rather than tossing them overhand. The ballpersons program brought in Tiahnne Noble from the Australian Open to teach the new ball-roll technique. This means the ballpersons who work behind the baseline no longer need to throw the ball the length of the court, which also results in the program welcoming a wider group of well-rounded applicants.
The U.S. Open consists of 127 matches across five categories: men’s singles and doubles, women’s singles and doubles, and mixed doubles. Six ballpersons are required for each match. Two occupy the net position, gathering dead balls and feeding them to the base positions located at each corner of the court. Bases retrieve balls from the nets and feed them to the players. Ballpersons sometimes don’t learn which court or player they’ll be assigned to until minutes before the match. They get this key information in the ballpersons lounge at the newly constructed Louis Armstrong Stadium, where they also rest and relax between matches.
Being a ballperson requires working on hot summer days, plus standing and running on your feet for hours. But there’s a reason some veterans keep returning to the job — some for 20-plus years: It’s rewarding on so many levels. As Meg Nitta, Ryuichi’s mother, puts it, “[I am] so happy to see Ryuichi will be a [ballperson] for Naomi Osaka’s match! Our family and relatives in Japan will also be watching.” It’s not just a summer job; it’s an honor.