US Open ball person tryouts seek speed, stealth

Some 300 youngsters competed to be ball people at the US Open in a tough two-month tryout.

By , Photo editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Here's what Polish teenager Patryk Stuchlik's first summer in America has been like. He's learned some English, made new friends, and visited the usual New York landmarks – including his favorite, Central Park, which, he says, looms so "big in the middle of the city."

Most important, he has survived a grueling two-month tryout to qualify as a ball boy for one of the biggest tournaments in sport – the US Open. Not bad for a shaggy-haired 16-year-old who has dreams of playing competitive tennis one day himself and whose hometown of Ledziny, Poland, (pop. 18,000) wouldn't even fill Arthur Ashe Stadium.

"This is like a victory," says Patryk, wearing a red T-shirt with Poland emblazoned on it. "In Poland, we don't have events like this."

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Patryk is one of more than 300 kids who tried out for 70 ball-person positions in what could be called tennis's version of American Idol. Every year, the United States Tennis Association uses around 270 ball people to staff its premier event, which starts its two-week run Aug 27.

This summer 200 were returnees from previous years – including the occasional lawyer and a few other adults. But most of the open positions are filled by eager young girls and boys who come with only their pimples and pigtails and dreams of chasing balls on some of the world's most famous asphalt. Most are from the New York area. But a few, like Patryk, travel great distances to compete in what turns out to be a tough winnowing process in its own right.

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On a humid day in June at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the candidates get their first chance to chase, retrieve, and throw tennis balls. It doesn't sound too complicated, right? It's not – if you have the stealth of a ninja, the speed of a cheetah, and the heat tolerance of a cactus.

At this point, the candidates can be separated into two main groups: those who are mostly star-struck and those who are athletes. Judy Norton, 24, is unapologetic about not having trained for the audition. When asked about why she's doing it, she's very clear: "I really want to meet Serena and Venus," she says of the Williams sisters. "Hopefully, I'll try out and maybe do a match for them. Everybody can dream."

The tryout is run like a well-oiled machine. Cathie Delaney, assistant director of US Open ball people, relies on her veterans to do most of the screening in the first round. The candidates are vying for two positions – "net," where they retrieve the balls hit into the webbing, and "back," where they scurry after the ones that go wide or fly past the baseline.

The net is considered the glamorous position. It requires speed, coordination, fast thinking, and, preferably, a small build. In the tryout, kids are positioned at both ends of the net poles. A ball is fired into the webbing. Instantly, the participants need to determine who will get the ball, take off like a Trident missile, grab the bouncing object, and decide whether to go back or continue to the other side of the court – all without stopping.

After a brief drill, 15-year-old Margaret is gasping for air. She finds the sprinting difficult, but remains undaunted: If she doesn't make the cut, she'll try again next year.

Mark Menendez, 17, knows how tough manning the net can be, too. He once knocked heads in the middle of the court with another ball person during a match. No matter. Mark has been back nine straight years. One reason: all the teamwork among the crew members. "I almost grew up around some of the other ball people," he says.

The "back" position is for the stronger candidates who are required to throw the ball accurately the length of the court. It also happens to bring the biggest perk – interaction with the players, with one caveat: those sweaty towels the players seem to enjoy tossing back at the ball people after wiping themselves off.

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By mid-July, the candidates who show promise are called back for more drills. The tone of the coaching staff is now changing from Paula Abdul positive reinforcement to Simon Cowell curtness. Ms. Delaney addresses the candidates in small groups. She fires off questions about their motivation, tennis knowledge, and level of commitment.

"This is not the hip-hop open," she tells one boy who's dressed casually. "This is a tennis event."

Then it's back to more drills, this time under tournament-like conditions. Many of the youngsters seem overwhelmed by the amount of information thrown at them. They have to keep track of six balls at a time without interrupting the flow of the game. They have to mentally keep score so they know who is serving at any moment. "This is about hustling – move, quick, quick," shouts Delaney. Later, when it's time for them to go home for the day, she imparts one final intimidating thought: This is "nothing like" how difficult it will be during the Open.

By late August, with one week to go before the start of the tournament, Patryk is now wearing his official blue uniform. He's been assigned to a six-member crew. It's qualifying week at the Open – a four-day period in which tennis players from all over the world compete for 16 reserved slots in the main draw of the Open. It's also time for the ball people to get their first "live" action.

The crews work two-hour shifts with two hours' rest in between. "I could've done better," says Patryk during one of his breaks. "I lost track of the score sometimes." His biggest surprise is how little he can concentrate on the players' performance. It's all about the balls.

But he's made it.

Over the next two weeks, he'll be living out a boyhood fantasy, and, who knows, maybe his friends back home will catch a glimpse of him on TV. Now he can finally call home and deliver the message he's wanted to all along: "Mom, I'm staying over here longer. I'm a ball boy in the US Open."

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