U.S. Open ballperson tryouts no day in the sun
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The sweat poured from my forehead and down my neck, a leaky faucet that had no way of being fixed. The breathing devolved into helpless gasps for air. The loud "thud, thud, thud" was nearby construction equipment, though it also might have been the plodding of my feet as my legs screamed for mercy.
About 15 feet ahead, a tennis ball rolled away from me. It couldn't have been going faster than 2 miles per hour, but it felt like chasing a Novak Djokovic serve.
So it went in late June during a U.S. Open ballperson tryout for media on Court 11 of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Yes, ballpersons are athletic. And even though they do all their work in anonymity, the job still is highly sought. U.S. Open officials say from 375 to 500 people try out for 80 available spots, which pay $7.75 an hour. About 270 ballpersons are required for the tournament, which will begin Aug. 25.
Of course, I never actually was going to be a ballperson, even if I had a flawless tryout. But it certainly was much more work than expected. Here's how it went.
On a drizzly Thursday morning, a group of about 20 media members -- myself included -- gathered at Court 11 to hear U.S. Open ballperson director Tina Taps provide an overview of the tryout.
There were two positions available: "back" and "net." The former involves throwing tennis balls, in rapid succession, about 100 feet down the length of the court on one bounce. The latter is what most people think of -- someone who scampers out to retrieve a ball hit into the net, then hurries off the court before the next serve.
It seemed easy enough. Anybody age 14 and up can try out, so it couldn't be that bad, right? My days as a mid-tier member of Connetquot High School's cross-country and track teams are well behind me, but I like to think I'm still in good shape.
A blue Ralph Lauren sample uniform was provided. I strapped a GoPro video camera to my head and went through a full stretching routine as other reporters performed their drills in pairs.
Some people did fine. Others kept throwing the ball into the net instead of over it. After four rotations, it was my turn. "No pressure," I told myself. "You'll be fine."
The "back" tryout
I met with Cathie Delaney, U.S. Open assistant director of ballpersons and my coach for this tryout. We walked to the rear corner of the court for the first part of the back tryout. Another participant stood on the other end of the court, three tennis balls in hand. He would be throwing first, so I had to be ready to catch.
I was able to catch the first ball with relative ease. The second and third ones got away.
After I retrieved all three balls, it was my turn to throw. With Delaney yelling in the background, urging me to get rid of the balls as quickly as possible, I fired the balls one by one down the court to my partner.
First throw: Short by about 15 feet.
Second throw: Short by about 30 feet.
Third throw: Short by about 20 feet.
I chalked it up to nerves. Maybe I rushed the throws. Maybe my front shoulder flew open like a pitcher grooving a fastball over the middle of the plate.
The rest of my throws were more of the same -- 10, 15, 20 feet short.
After a few more cringeworthy attempts, we moved to the opposite side behind the baseline, on the same side of the court where the chair umpire's seat was located. One of the veteran ballboys came over from the other side of the court and climbed up into the chair.
At that point, the test was clear: Do the same thing as before, but make extra sure not to bean the chair umpire in the side of the head.
Fortunately for me -- and him -- that didn't occur.
But yet again, I was short on all my tries. My wildly inaccurate final throw even wound up in the front row of the stands to my right. If it were an actual match, there'd be a lucky fan over there.
Catching the incoming tennis balls didn't get easier. Several throws bounced over my head, and I had to play them off the fence the way a leftfielder at Fenway Park would play a double off the Green Monster. A few balls even sneaked past me onto the court after bouncing off the wall.
Delaney shook her head.
The final test was the diagonal cross-court throw, and Delaney wanted my throws to at least reach the service line. Yeah, sorry about that, Ms. Delaney.
After my final duck of a throw, Delaney gave my partner the "we're done" throat slash. My right arm was a little sore. My pride was a lot sore.
But there was no time for me to dwell on any of that. It was time to sprint.
The "net" tryout
I lined up on the near side of the court next to the net as Delaney went over the basics of the first net drill: With my hands behind my back, I'd wait for the ball to hit the net. As soon as it hit, I'd sprint onto the court, get the ball, leave via whichever side was closest, toss the ball to the back ballperson and return to the hands-behind-the-back position for the next attempt.
After completely botching the back ballperson tryout, I thought I'd do better in this setting. After all, this was a test of pure speed (right?), and if there's anything I still have from my days as a runner, it's slightly-above-average quickness.
The first ball was hit directly in front of me. Not too much of a challenge, I thought. I just picked it up with one hand and threw it to the back ballperson.
And there was my first mistake.
It turned out that the drill relied on more than just speed; it required coordination, specifically the ability to pick up the ball with both hands. It took about two or three tries before the ballboy serving the ball into the net told me that I needed to use both hands instead of scooping them up with one hand mid-sprint.
Aside from that, I thought I was doing OK. I got the tennis balls quickly, and -- this time -- my throws weren't an issue. (I actually had to take a little off the fastball on some of the early throws, because they had to get there on one bounce.) It was a bit tiring, though.
For the next part of the tryout, a ball would be rolled on the ground in front of the net. I'd have to run out, retrieve it (with both hands), run to the back ballperson, hand the ball to him behind our backs, run back to the net and stand with my hands behind my back to wait for the next attempt.
I messed up the first try because I didn't know I had to hand the ball off behind my back. Once corrected, everything went smoothly. Sort of.
About midway through, fatigue set in. Darn lactic acid!
After a few attempts, it was on to the final test of the afternoon. The veteran ballperson would hit a ball into the ground, and I had to catch it on one bounce. Once I caught the ball, it was the same process as the previous test in terms of handing off to the back ballperson.
The server really got all of his first hit. It immediately shot out of bounds behind me. I frantically tried to track it in the air, but before I could grab it, I ran out of real estate.
The ball sailed over the fence and into the small bleachers outside the court. I tried reaching over the railing like a first baseman going for a foul ball near the dugout, but it was out of my reach.
By this point, I was struggling big-time. I hadn't experienced a workout this rigorous since I ran mile repeats in high school.
At one point, I had returned to the net and put my hands on my hips to take a two-second break before the next serve. It seemed harmless enough -- until the veteran ballboy kindly reminded me to put my hands behind my back. As soon as I did, he immediately hit the ball into the ground for another attempt.
It was only 10 minutes, but Delaney saw enough to render a final judgment. She came over to tell me that I was all done, and in between gasps for air, I asked her how I did.
"No for the back," Delaney said. "You need to throw deeper, your hands have to be better."
But surely I redeemed myself at the net, no?
"Your speed was OK, but it was your hands and agility, keeping control of the ball and everything," Delaney said. "And you threw better from the net than you did from the back. So I don't know, I don't know. I'd have to look at how everybody else does before I'd decide whether I can bring you in for callbacks."
Translation: Nice try, pal. Maybe next time.
It didn't help my case that twice as many backs are taken as nets, because there are four backs on every court versus two nets. In that sense, it's a numbers game, and because Delaney wouldn't need as many nets, I would have had to really make up for my lack of arm strength with a great net showing to earn a callback.
But even though I had completely bombed the tryout, it gave me a newfound appreciation for ballpersons.
Imagine doing everything that I just described for hours at a time with the temperature 20 degrees hotter, the sun beating down on you, the cameras on you, thousands of people in the seats watching. No room for error.
For the average person, it's a lot. For the average ballperson, it's a day's work.