NEW YORK—Minutes after posting a picture on Facebook of the email, Max Levy got a reply. The email informed him that he had made the cut and been selected as a ball person at this year’s U.S. Open. The reply was from Jenna Loeb, a former coach of his and the sister of Jamie, a top American junior and wild-card entry into the qualifying tournament.
“If you get on my sister’s match,” Jenna wrote, “you better not screw up!”
And how do I know about the Facebook message? Because Max told me about it over dinner.
I am covering my 35th consecutive U.S. Open as a member of the press corps; my 17-year-old son is working his first. Aside from driving out together in the morning and meeting back up at the fountain outside Arthur Ashe Stadium at day’s end, I hardly see him. When I do, when I wander by the court where he is performing his ball person duties (proud mom wanting to bask in the glow of his throwing arm), he doesn’t make eye contact. He stands Buckingham-guard-like in position behind the baseline, hands clasped firmly behind his back, until the point ends. Then, he dashes to grab the ball and throw it down the line, from his end of the court to the ball person on the other end, or else retrieves the throw from the other end—with one bounce, no more—and then tosses it to the player about to serve. Sometimes he hands the player a towel to mop up sweat. He loves every minute of it but never cracks a smile. He wears his game face at all times.
The competition for the job was about as fierce as the fighting one’s way through the food court between matches. Back in June—after warming up by throwing balls across the backyard to our eager dog, Scooter—Max queued up with nearly 500 other hopefuls for one of the 80 coveted spots awarded to rookies. A high school varsity tennis player, he was joined by a wide assemblage of athletes, including baseball, soccer, and football players, as well as former military servicemen and one or two retired people looking for a chance to get up close and personal with the players. The rookies would be added to the 150 veterans who would be back for their second, fourth, or 24th year on the job. While the minimum age to be a ball person is 14, there is no maximum age; this year, one man is 64 years old.
Two weeks later, Max returned to Flushing Meadows for a callback in which he had to run, throw, and catch once again, and also prove that he knows something about the game. One applicant, who claimed that he knew how to keep score but then said that only five points were required to win a tiebreaker, was presumably not hired.
Following an afternoon spent learning the intricacies and professionalism required for the job, Max was assigned to work the qualifying rounds. Just like many pros, rookie ball persons must enter the qualies in hopes of reaching the main draw. Unlike the players, ball persons never sit down during changeovers, no matter how hot and humid the conditions are. Instead, they hold umbrellas over the players, offer water to the lines people—and make sure to drink plenty of water themselves. It never looks good for a ball kid to pass out on court.
Midway through his first qualifying match, Max’s official cap flew off his head as he chased a netted forehand. Not knowing whether to keep running or stop and pick up the hat, Max chose the former. The chair umpire gently remanded him to go back and grab the hat. When, a few minutes later, the crew chief on his court (a more seasoned ball person assigned to oversee the rookies) asked his name, he panicked that his brief transgression would cost him his job.
On the second day of qualifying, Max was assigned to a court for a match involving Olivier Rochus, a 32-year-old amiable Belgian once ranked as high as No. 24 in the world. At 5’5”, Rochus is the shortest player on the ATP World Tour and has been photographed with 6’10 John Isner, just for laughs. But since he has already decided that 2014 will be his final year on tour, Rochus was doing everything he could to restore his game to its former glory. After his first win (which turned out to be his last), I stopped Rochus and asked about the individuals he’s in contact with more than anyone else during match play.
“Sorry, we don’t really notice the ball kids,” Rochus said, mopping his face with the towel that had been presented to him so many times during the match by Max or one of his colleagues. “They’re fast and they throw the ball well, so there’s nothing to complain about. I only notice when they do something wrong.”
Julia Glushko, a 23-year-old Israeli who won three qualifying matches before squandering four match points in a heartbreaking third-round loss to Daniela Hantuchova, can empathize with the ball kids—she was once one herself. Not long after moving with her family from the Ukraine to a town halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, she was tapped to be a ball girl at a Challenger event at the Israel Tennis Center at Ramat HaSharon.
It didn’t go very well for Glushko: She was hit in the eye by a ball served by one of the men and carried off the court in tears. But it wasn't all bad. The player who hit her actually ended up becoming one of her coaches.
Glushko, who has played a lot of Challengers herself, has seen ball kids hop up and down, play with their hands and even juggle the tennis balls during points. “Here they are great,” she said. “So professional, so well-trained.”
No one has a better vantage point to see what’s happening on court better than the ball persons. They see the players sweat, they hear them curse under their breath, they absorb their perspiration. Sometimes they even deflect their blows, as happened when Max was working a qualifying match between talented young American Jared Donaldson and 29-year-old German Phillipp Petzschner. Petzschner was in no danger of losing the match (he won 6-2, 6-0), but a German fan decided to get in a shouting match with Donaldson’s coach. During a changeover in the second set, the fan stood up and began yelling obscenities until he was finally removed by a security guard.
Safety also became an issue when Frenchman Edouard Roger-Vasselin smashed his racket into the ground in another match of Max's. It burst into pieces; Roger-Vasselin incurred a warning and a stiff fine for racket abuse, while Max ended up with a tiny fragment of the frame that landed inches from his foot.
With their collective experiences, the camaraderie among the ball persons is instantaneous—Max likened it to going to summer camp, where kids bond over Powerade breaks and food court lunches. Sometimes they recognize each other from high school matches or junior tournaments. Max forged a quick friendship with a boy named Noah Koeppel, a four-year veteran who lives a few towns away, went to a rival camp, and kindly showed Max the ropes.
But even among the ball kids, competition exists. Everyone wants to work the show courts and get coveted TV face time. Max has gotten as far as Court 13, and he knows rookies may never see the inside of Ashe, Armstrong, Grandstand, or even Court 17. As the tournament progresses, fewer ball boys are needed. But, so far, Max has survived the cuts. He has no interest in the first day of school.
On the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center were buzzing. Andy Murray took the court in defense of his first major, Serena Williams faced Sloane Stephens in a much-hyped rematch of their battle at the Australian Open, and the Bryan Brothers, going for the Grand Slam, faced a three-set challenge from Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil. I could have been watching any of these matches.
Instead, I’m over at tucked-away Court 8, watching a first-round junior girls’ match between a Russian and an Italian. But I’m not really watching them. I’ve got my eye on a stoic, stone-faced, sweaty kid who takes his job seriously and won’t even sneak me a glance. I’m grinning a Sahara-wide smile.
Cindy Shmerler is a contributing editor for TENNIS Magazine.