When you think of the U.S. Open, you probably think of tennis, New York City, great night matches, and maybe even Serena Williams, six-time U.S. Open champion. However, I bet you don’t think of the behind-the-scenes activities like the process of selecting the ballpeople you see catching and throwing the balls during some of tennis’ most important matches. I recently tried out to be a ballperson, but let me tell you — it’s not as easy as it looks.
Every year, the U.S. Open holds tryouts for anyone older than 14 — and I mean anyone. As long as you fulfill all the athletic requirements, you can become a ballperson. In fact, there are volunteers as old as 75 simply because they were good enough. Usually about 400 people try out, but each year there are only about 80 spots open because many people from previous years return. It’s a competitive contest against some talented catchers and throwers, that’s for sure.
During a match, there are usually five ballpeople on the court. One crouches on either side of the net, prepared to retrieve any tennis ball that doesn’t make it over the net. The other four stand on either side of the court in each back left or right corners. They throw the balls to the players and back and forth to each other, depending on where and when the player is serving.
Personally, I found running back in forth in front of the net a lot easier than throwing baseline to baseline. In the tryout, two volunteer tennis players purposely hit the ball in the net repeatedly, and it was up to me to grab it with two hands and run to the other side. I realized how awkward it is to fumble with the ball in front of the player and the match-goers. I definitely stumbled over my feet and with the tennis ball once or twice. I also figured out pretty quickly how important your speed is. You literally have to sprint to the ball. The hardest part was to work up all that speed and then have to make a quick halt to pick up the ball, and then rapidly run off.
Next came the baseline to baseline throwing. I was walked to one end of the tennis court, and was told to throw the tennis ball far enough that it would reach the other side, and high enough that it wouldn’t hit the official in the umpire chair. Let’s just say that a combination of my left handed hook and noodle arms did not make for a good throw. The tennis ball was supposed to be thrown to the right of the court, but my poor aim resulted in multiple tennis balls ending up in right the center of the court. Yikes... it’s a good thing there wasn’t a real match going on.
Overall, trying out was a fun experience. Although it was a lot of hard work in the heat, I had a lot of fun. If you want to try out to be a ballperson, be ready for a lot of sprinting, make sure you stretch, and be sure to hydrate. I neglected to stretch, so maybe that’s why my throwing was off, but something tells me that had nothing to do with it. My instructor, veteran Wendy Baum, told me that I didn’t make the cut for the baseline throwing position, but I actually did pretty good with the net position, so who knows? Maybe you’ll see me scampering for a ball in front of the net come the end of August (but you definitely won’t see me throw).