World-class athletes take center stage every year at the U.S. Open, but there might be one position on the courts that is even more coveted: that of the ball boy or ball girl.
The United States Tennis Association (USTA) ball people have one of the game’s most important jobs: retrieving errant balls, supplying new ones, and fetching towels and drinks for the players. But there’s a catch. They have to do it all with ninja speed and stealth. The best ball person is never noticed, so the pressure is on to remain incognito—all while standing feet away from the likes of Novak Djokovic and Angelique Kerber.
Though this summer gig is cool—you can’t compete with getting the best seats in the house and watching any match you want when you’re not working—there’s a lot of hard work that goes into being unseen at one of the most popular tennis competitions in the world.
With the 2018 U.S. Open under way, WSWD sat down with an official USTA ball person (whose identity we can’t disclose so as not to jeopardize his good standing with the association), who shared the art behind being invisible in a match watched by millions of people worldwide.
What Should We Do?!: How long have you been a ball boy?
Anonymous Ball Person (ABP): Actually, the USTA is very careful about being politically correct. They don’t refer to us as ball boys; we’re called ball people or ball person.
WSWD: Oh, sorry! What are the tryouts like to become a ball person?
ABP: Tryouts are intense, and there are three rounds. The first round is an open call for which hundreds of people show up. The year I auditioned, there were more than 450 people trying out. They split you into groups, and prior ball people review you. You do about 10 minutes of actual ball person activity, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s literally 10 minutes of sprinting and throwing nonstop. It’s so exhausting. If it were 11 minutes, I definitely would’ve been cut. They are testing your physical ability. Throwing a tennis ball the length of a court is actually very difficult because of how light the ball is. You have to get the ball to your partner on the other side for the next serve, but your partner is running to get the towel for that player. Then you have to figure out when to throw to your partner. You have to have those basic skills down. They’re also really paying attention to whether or not you can listen to instruction.
For the second round, you get an email about callbacks with a specific time to show up. They weed you out by availability, and they’re pretty strict about rescheduling. You will probably be cut if you can’t make that appointment, because they want to make sure you can really commit. They cut from 450 to 150 for this next round. It’s essentially the same physical tests, but this time, the judges are the members of the USTA who run the ball person program, and they are really evaluating you. They watch you like hawks, because they’ve seen decades’ worth of tryouts.
During the third round, they cut it down to bring 60 or 70 rookies in for the qualification week. There, you’re actually a ball person for four days of qualification matches (ball people call them “qualis”). They’ll have former ball people assigned as the head of your crew (they’re called crew chiefs), and they will evaluate you as you go. They bring you in the day before qualis for a two- to three-hour training. It’s 98 degrees and humid in the middle of August. The two things that the ball person does not have time for is messing around or being soft and hand-holding. By the end of the week, we get cut down from 70 to about 40 to 50 rookie ball people. If you do the math, it’s a less than 10 percent acceptance rate, which means it’s actually harder to become a ball person than it is to get into most of the Ivy Leagues except for Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.
WSWD: Are the ball people all really good tennis players themselves?
ABP: No. The most important thing about being a ball person is being able to grab the ball and being able to throw it without being seen. So the best ball person would be more like a third baseman on a baseball team: someone with a really strong, accurate arm and really quick hand-eye reflexes. It’s easy to teach somebody the basic rules of tennis, but it’s not easy to teach someone to throw an incredibly light tennis ball so it bounces right to the chest of the player you’re throwing to. [Ed. note: Kramer would have been cut. They don’t want fancy moves; they want you to be able to throw the ball while being as boring as possible.]
WSWD: You’re not a young boy. Is it weird working with kids?
ABP: Actually, a third of the 300-plus ball people are over 18. The maturity of the adults helps the kids, because teenagers are teenagers. At least one of the nights you’ll definitely be working until 12:45 a.m., and you probably started that shift around noon. The morning shift ends at around 7 p.m. or so and starts at 10 a.m., and the afternoon/evening will start around noon. It’s a lot for teens. Also, most of the kids have to head back to school for the last three days of the Open after Labor Day, so they need the adult ball people for those last important matches.
WSWD: Are the players nice? Do any of them act like divas?
ABP: Players have specific requests, like a certain color Powerade, but they’re typically really nice. Certain players want the balls presented to them in a certain way. There was one time where I poorly passed a ball to a player who was about to lose his match, and he let the ball bounce because he did not like the way I passed it to him. My crewmate had to eventually sprint and get it. The players will tell you how they want you to pass it to them. Once a player told me, “Racket side, firm,” so he could bounce it off of his racket instead of catching it.
WSWD: Sounds like the players are a little superstitious?
ABP: Yes, certain players have superstitions and will stop playing until you get back into your place. That’s the least of the annoying things that players do. A lot of players will do this: If the ball goes out of bounds, they will almost never want to play with that ball again. If they just won a point, sometimes they’ll wait and ask for that ball. But if they lost a point, they’ll hit it away. A few times they thought I gave them the wrong one, so you learn to make it obvious and you learn to speak an unspoken language (I held it with different hands).
WSWD: Do they get mad if they think you’ve made a mistake?
ABP: Sometimes. There are a couple of players who don’t like the ball being bounced behind them. Veterans will remind you of this, but you do it because that’s what’s been drilled into you from training. I have been a part of matches where the player has turned around and screamed at the ball people and crew chief about it. The crew chief knows it’s what we were taught to do, and then he makes us bounce the ball back to our crewmate before giving it to him. But for the most part, the players are just specific about what they want. Rafael Nadal, for example, wants a towel after every single point. You take the towel, sprint back, hang it up, and turn for the balls in case the player needs one.
WSWD: What is the hardest part about being a ball person?
ABP: Standing still when there is nothing going on. You can kind of shift on your feet, but you’re not supposed to move until you have to sprint to get the ball or towel or set up for the player. You only move with purpose. You’re not allowed to stand or block any of the promotional signage or logo, which takes forethought and training. On some of the courts, you have a very limited amount of space to stand. Like a one-foot space between the clock and promotional signage. And the line person is backing up into you because he/she has to be able to see for the server and the play.
WSWD: What about the heat?
ABP: That, too. There are times when you have to have a short crew, which is four people rather than the regular six. It’s kind of more fun because it means you don’t have to stand there perfectly still the entire time. While it’s very exhausting, it’s a lot easier to be moving in the August heat than it is to be standing perfectly still for five or 10 minutes at a time, because the ball isn’t coming toward you and you’re not on serve…that’s brutal. At that point, you’re praying for the ball to come to you so you have an excuse to move.
WSWD: The sweat situation must be crazy!
ABP: It is! You have to be comfortable getting on your hands and knees and wiping the player’s sweat off the court, and you have to be extremely focused while doing it. It’s incredibly hot and the players are dripping sweat. Not only that, they’re dripping sweat on the baseline, which creates a very slippery situation for the player and the ball. Routinely, the chair umpire will say that you have to wipe down the entirety of the baseline because the player sweats so much there (the line is 60 feet). One of you is wiping down sweat in front of 5,000 people, and your partner has to sprint and get the towel and the water.
WSWD: Do you get a lot of tennis swag being a ball person?
ABP: Yes. A few years ago, Polo Ralph Lauren started to be pretty generous with its swag. We get pants, a jacket, a couple shirts, shorts, shoes, socks, and sweatbands—and it’s swanky stuff. One of us added it up one year and figured out that we got $980 worth of merchandise. The crew has to look identical when we go on the court. If one person wants to wear pants, everyone else has to wear pants, kind of like a sorority or fraternity when they’re going through rush. There is definitely a sense of pride in owning a decade’s worth of U.S. Open ball person swag. Sometimes we trade.
WSWD: Do the ball people share any inside jokes?
ABP: We definitely make fun of people who come to the Open in tennis clothes. The middle-aged folks from Greenwich, Connecticut, who do it are so funny; it’s like they think Andy Murray is going to want to warm up with them.
WSWD: Do you get a lot of attention as ball people?
ABP: A lot of people ask to take pictures with us. A surprising number, actually. We’re always game unless we’re running to or from a match. Tennis moms make jokes about how hot we look in our uniform.