Scenes From Queens: Ball Kids

by: Richard Pagliaro | September 04, 2012

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The U.S. Open is more than just the matches, it's an experience. Each day, we'll highlight one part of what makes the Open the Open.

All-court tennis is alive and thriving at the U.S. Open, courtesy of the energetic souls whose comprehensive court coverage extends from bursts to the net to brushes with the back wall, where they can tell time glancing at the wrist watches of linesmen. They are masters of multi-tasking who can run with Roger Federer, shield Serena Williams from the sun, or rise to heights usually only realized by John Isner—sometimes all in a day’s work.

Players take center stage during the U.S. Open, but the ball kids are the supporting cast to the stars. The ball kids are the pick-up artists who collaborate with players constantly throughout the course of a match, and when they’re at their best you may not even notice their work—though the players themselves pay attention. Three-time U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters has been so impressed with one ball girl's diligence that she requested the girl work her matches during her Flushing Meadows farewell this year.

Each June, more than 500 people descend on the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for the annual U.S. Open ball kid try-outs, where prospective candidates are tested on their throwing, catching and running skills. Making the final cut can be almost as taxing as qualifying for the Open itself: Only 252 ball persons were chosen from more than 500 applicants for the 2010 U.S. Open. For many, the opportunity to stand in the shadow of the stars is the ultimate tennis reward.

“It’s my first job and it’s such an incredible experience to be out there on the court with the players you watch on TV,” says 14-year-old Yonkers, N.Y. native Mariella Mercado, who is working her first U.S. Open. “I used to go to the Open and watch it from the stands, so to actually be on the court is amazing. You have to be alert and really pay attention because things can happen quickly so it helps to know the game, and of course you don’t want to mess up. That’s probably the biggest challenge, but it’s also so much fun.”

A day in the life of the typical U.S. Open ball person (it’s a bit mis-leading to call them “ball kids,” as some are adults who take time off from work each summer to work as part of the crew) begins at “The Perch,” a section of the upper stands beneath the girders and between the Grandstand and Louis Armstrong Stadium courts, where the crew convenes each morning to see their court assignments written on a white Dry Erase board.

The best ball kids, like elite players, get up for the big matches. Of the four Grand Slam tournaments, the U.S. Open demands the most of its ball kids. It is the only major where the ball people are required to throw the balls the length of the court rather than rolling them down the side of the court, as is the case at other majors (watch how heavy and discolored the balls can get from rolling through the dirt on a damp day at Roland Garros) and it’s the only major that pays its ball crew.

“It’s the only tournament where we actually throw the ball the length of the court, ideally on one bounce,” says veteran ball person Brian Shu, who grew up in Queens, took a sabbatical from the ball crew while attending college, and now takes time off from his job with a marketing firm to work the Open. “Other tournaments, they roll the ball or pass them along, so in that case anyone can be at the net or the back. Here, we have three different positions: You’re either at net or back or both. So if you have the arm strength and speed you can do both. If you’re quick and agile you would do the net. That’s something that fans may not realize unless they were ball kids themselves.”

Queens native Anthony Santino grew up 10 minutes from the National Tennis Center and is a devoted tennis player and fan living the tennis dream at the Open.

“My favorite part of the job is sharing the court with the players,” Santino says. “You watch them all year on TV and then now you’re seeing them up close and on the court, and it’s a lot different and a lot more exciting being out there with them. You realize what incredible athletes they are. My favorites to work with are the young Americans like Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock. I like the young up-and-coming players; they bring a lot of energy to the court.”

Striking up a conversation with players is prohibited, however if a player asks a question or engages the ball kids in discussion, they’re allowed to respond.

“The people who run the ball crew give us specifics when it comes to dealing with the players on court it’s discretionary,” Santino says. “You don’t start the conversation, but if the players talk to you, then you can answer. For the most part, you try to be invisible out there unless they talk to you first.”

Watch former Basel ball boy Roger Federer (he ball boyed for players ranging from Jimmy Connors to compatriot and friend Martina Hingis) closely during the Open's early rounds, and you'll sometimes see him acknowledge ball kids either flipping a ball to them with his racquet, or sometimes even playfully engaging them with a misdirection toss.

"I think the reason he does that is that he was a ball person himself growing up, so he’s aware of the job we do," says Shu. "And I think it’s kind of Federer's way of interacting with the ball kids, letting us know that he knows the job we’re doing. Federer is my favorite player and he's the reason I came back to the job after college. My dream was just to experience that thrill of being on the court in person doing a Roger Federer match, so when I got to to do the Federer-Djokovic semifinal last year it was such an exciting moment, I will never forget it."

More Scenes from Queens:

Monday, August 27: Getting to the Open
Tuesday, August 28: Night Matches
Wednesday, August 29: Photography
Thursday, August 30: Autographs
Friday, August 31: Food at the Open
Saturday, September 1: Practice Courts
Sunday, September 2: Getting In
Monday, September 3: Staying Connected
Tuesday, September 4: Ball Kids
Wednesday, September 5: The Corporate Connection
Thursday, September 6: The Outer Courts
Friday, September 7: Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Saturday, September 8: Arthur Ashe
Sunday, September 9: Empty Corridors

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