WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va.—Is that really Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin chasing a runaway ball between points?
"It's obviously different," the world No. 4 says. "I don't mind doing it, but I prefer playing, let's just say it like that for sure."
At The Greenbrier this month through the World Team Tennis final on August 2, ball persons and lines people are noticeably absent. In the first few days, it made for some surprising moments when some big stars filled in for ball shagging duties. Seeing Sloane Stephens and Sam Querrey sprint after balls is now just part of the "new normal".
"We're just trying to do the best that we can with the circumstance and the hand that we were given," Taylor Townsend says.
Sam Querrey chasing a ball during a Las Vegas Rollers match. (Ryan Loco)
While some watching will call out the fact that players aren't wearing masks, are touching all the balls and are even grabbing towels for each other, just remember they're in a "quarantine bubble". All players, coaches and staff have passed two rounds of COVID-19 testing.
The level of ball person experience varies wildly amidst the WTT field. Kenin has one previous ball girl experience under her belt, as do a few others including Danielle Collins, Tommy Paul and Rajeev Ram.
"I was a ball girl when I was younger for John McEnroe, Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis," Collins says. "So I guess I have some experience."
"I did it when I was 12 for the tournament in Indianapolis," Ram says. "There was training and selection for that. It was a long time ago. I did a night match once and it was Andre Agassi and Alex Corretja."
Even that one tournament is a lot more than most. Querrey, Townsend and Brandon Nakashima are total newbies.
"I've never done it, I was like, Oh my God, this is so hard," Townsend says. "I give them a lot of credit because it can lull you to sleep, but you have got to be ready."
As the matches have worn on, the enthusiasm hasn't lessened even when it's pushing 90 degrees Fahrenheit on the court. Players have been a constant presence in the corners of the court, along with team coaches.
"You're seeing things from a different angle and see what's actually happening versus on the bench," Townsend says.
Sloane Stephens taking on court clean-up duties. (Ryan Loco)
When players aren't holding on them, white umbrella have been rigged up as bench covers to give some relief from the heat, and those on ball duties are strategic about their court positioning.
"There's a little corner of shade on one side and the tent was giving us some shade on the other side," Tommy Paul says. "So we can find it when we needed it."
Staying mentally and physically engaged is important in WTT because you might play the first set and last set, putting over 90 minutes of sitting time between court time.
"It's just a good chance to stay warm so you're not sitting on the bench," Townsend says. "And to just stay involved with your teammate. You get a chance to talk to them and be a little bit more engaged with your team while they're playing."
Neil Skupski for the New York Empire with Sabine Lisicki watching on. (Ryan Loco)
The little bits of advice between points can make a difference.
"Bethanie [Mattek-Sands] was really helping me in the men's doubles about being more aggressive on the volleys," Ram says. "She's won like 60 Slams and a gold medal, so I'm going to trust her. We all know each other pretty well so if they can see some they can help out more so than just the coach."
Mattek-Sands has technically won nine, and her gold medal was actually over Ram and Venus Williams in Rio.
For many of the players, minding their own balls is nothing new.
"I don't take it as a luxury because I've gone between ITF and WTA where there are no ball kids versus having ball kids," Townsend says. "I know what it's like to have to walk three courts out and have to get your own ball. I definitely don't take it for granted."