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At U.S. Open, placing players' names on board can be hazardous work

Tennis fans watch as Novak Jokovic practices at

Tennis fans watch as Novak Jokovic practices at Louis Armstrong Stadium in Queens on Sunday, Aug. 31, 2015. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Burford Smith believes he and his assistant, Rafael Garcia, will have the most-photographed backs in America over the next couple of weeks.

For the past 11 years, Smith has climbed 30-foot ladders perched on 25-foot-high scaffolding at Louis Armstrong Stadium to place the names of U.S. Open tennis players on the "draw board," which lists the brackets, the victors and eventual champions.

On Sunday, the last free-entry day for visitors before competition starts Monday, crowds gathered to watch them place the names -- and search for any misspellings.

LuAnne Pate, 51, of Charlotte, North Carolina, stared at Serena Williams' matchups on what would be a Grand Slam, winning all four major tennis tournaments in a calendar year.

"The board is for us OCD people who want to know," she said.

Her friend Chris Hardin, 50, said, "We like to see the matchups in writing."

Between men's and women's singles, doubles, mixed doubles, juniors and the wheelchair division, Smith, 52, of Atlanta and Garcia, 30, of Los Angeles estimate they would place about 1,400 names during the tournament, which runs through Sept. 13.

Working from a rooftop spot tucked behind the draw board, next to an air conditioning unit and vent from a women's bathroom, Smith types the names from a laptop computer to a vinyl cutter -- like a printer. The names come out on material like bumper stickers.

The company they work for, TGI Systems of Chicago, does events worldwide. And Garcia said the heights here are nothing compared to hanging from 100 feet of scaffolding on the side of a stadium.

But spelling can be a job hazard at the U.S. Open, with its contingent of international players.

"We check it one name at a time," Smith said. "That doesn't mean every once in a while we don't have problems."

He remembers one misspelling of a now-forgotten player broadcast on live television, and then commented on for the rest of the tournament.

If it's a really popular player whose name is misspelled, the crowd who gathers to watch below will let him know "snap -- as soon as it happens."

But one year, it took three rounds and three different spellings of a player's name before someone pointed the problem out to him.

He's not a tennis fan, but does admit, "If it's Lu vs. Pavlyuchenkova, I'm rooting for Lu."

Though the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is going through a $500 million redo, Chris Widmaier, spokesman for the U.S. Open, said there are no plans to replace the manual draw board.

"We do want to have a balance between the innovative and tradition," he said. "It's one of those unexpected things fans can run across."

David Zagorski, 51, of Forest Hills stared up at the big board after a day watching some of the top players in the world practice. "I'm looking for misspellings. Last year, I spotted three," he said.


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