Laray Fowler was in the hallway of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in September 2009 when she was stopped by her tennis idol, Kim Clijsters.
“Where were you?” Clijsters asked Fowler after her quarterfinal victory over Li Na.
“What do you mean?” a shell-shocked Fowler replied.
“My whole team noticed you weren’t on the court,” said the former No. 1.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the ball girl. “I was doing another match.”
That excuse wasn’t good enough.
“Well you can’t miss anymore,” the Hall of Famer said, tongue in cheek.
Fowler, now 33 and with 20 US Opens worth of ballperson experience, had worked all of Clijsters’ US Open matches leading up to the 2009 quarterfinals. And with an assist from Tina Taps, US Open Ballperson Director since 1989, Fowler would go on to work Clijsters’ semifinal upset of Serena Williams, and was assigned her final-round match against Caroline Wozniacki.
When Clijsters defeated Wozniacki for her second US Open title, the Belgian fell to the court and started
crying. Fowler, already at the net, sat down, couldn’t contain herself, and started crying as well. Fowler saw Clijsters in the locker room later that evening and, after congratulating her, they cried again, in each other’s arms.
“Thank you so much for all your help,” Clijsters told Fowler.
While this is a unique story—Clijsters and Fowler keep in touch to this day—the connection between athlete and fan in tennis is unlike any other sport. From Kazakhstan to Buenos Aires to Wimbledon, youngsters and adults from all walks of life can get up close to the world’s best tennis players. That’s because, unlike other sports, they can actually become part of the match.
Ballpersons retrieve balls, hand out towels and keep the match moving. Like umpires, if you don’t notice them, they’re doing a good job. In doing so, they often forge a lifelong bond with the sport they play such a key role in.
“If it weren’t for the experiences that I’ve had, and experiencing tennis up close, I don’t even think I’d be playing in college,” says Justin Holmes, a 19-year-old freshman at Boston College who has been working the US Open as a ballperson since he was 14. “I wouldn’t have the same love for the game.”
In June, roughly 460 people, including Holmes, came to Flushing Meadows for the chance to become a ballperson at the 2017 US Open. It was a new record for US Open tryouts, as hopeful candidates waited to show off their running, throwing and catching skills.
Not everyone in line was a lifelong tennis fan; they were there to land “the coolest summer job in sports,” as the USTA describes it. But if they weren’t tennis players or followers of the game coming in, you can count on that changing after a year as a ballperson.
“There’s a saying that goes, ‘If you love life, life will love you back,’” Holmes said after giving a demonstration during tryouts. “I think tennis is a sport where the same thing applies. If you love tennis, tennis will love you back.
“This is an example of it loving me back, as far as the connection I’ve built with the ball-person family, with the tennis family, with the tennis pros at the US Open.”
Holmes has worked US Open singles semifinals and doubles finals. He’s shared the court with the likes of Rafael Nadal, Serena and Venus Williams, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
“It’s improved my game and my appreciation for the sport, just by being behind players and just watching their passion, their integrity, their hard work,” says Holmes. Among other highlights, Holmes worked the all-Williams quarterfinal at the 2015 US Open, and over time has established a friendly rapport with Venus. At the BNP Paribas Showdown in Manhattan in March, Venus greeted Holmes with a hug, and struck up a conversation as she handed him a towel.
“I’m going to see you at the Open, right?” the seven-time Grand Slam champion asked Holmes after her match ended. “If Serena and I don’t see you, we’re going to be heartbroken.”
Holmes has given tennis balls to and exchanged words with Roger Federer, Victoria Azarenka, Nadal, Djokovic, Nick Kyrgios—“he’s the coolest guy”—and Gael Monfils. So have countless other ballpersons around the world, in a tradition that dates back generations.
And for the great majority of ballpersons, whose experience started with a tryout, it leaves them wanting more.
“They’re out in the heat, they’re in the wind,” said Taps about this year’s crop of candidates. “They can’t wait to try out. They count down the days.”
Those that made the cut received a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but its impact will resonate for a lifetime.
For generations, and for generations to come, tennis has positively impacted the young and old, on and off the court, in countless ways. In this year’s Heroes special, we’ve selected 30 such stories, including a 10-year-old amputee’s life-changing moment with Roger Federer, the rebuilding of a college program after Hurricane Katrina, a former prodigy’s important message as an adult, and a 78-year-old coach’s enduring influence on the pros. Taken together, these 30 stories illustrate how people grow up, grow as individuals and grow old with tennis—the sport of a lifetime. Click here for more Heroes stories.