The ball was coming at me like a rifle shot. I could have gotten out of the way, I suppose, but dodging a round from a carbine isn't easy under the best of circumstances. These weren't the best of circumstances.
As a ball boy at the US Open's Grandstand, I was supposed to stand as stoically as possible at my own peril. James Blake's 110-m.p.h. serve slammed into my abdomen. The 1,000 tennis fans in the stadium gasped. Even the good-natured Blake, the No. 25 seed, broke his service rhythm for an apologetic wave. I, on the other hand, summoned my best ball-boy demeanor and didn't so much as wince, though I longed for an injury timeout.
A ball boy's job is to be invisible. A timeout, for me, was impossible; a mere grimace meant shame. Unlike golf caddies, ball boys are not supposed to interact with players or wax on about the peculiarities of the game or anything else. They're simply there to expedite matches: Get the balls, fetch the water, throw the towels, hold umbrellas, and wipe down the court. The job is a mix of garbage collector, water boy, congressional page everyone's servant, on nobody's side, one soldier in a six-ball-boy battalion. It takes an English butler's deportment and a diplomat's cool.
But for all the prohibitions of ball boydom, we do get the best seats on the floor.
We hear the players grunt and groan, see them grimace and spit. We rate them on a system of our own, noting each frown and the nuanced anger of a racket toss. Human robot Andre Agassi is a ball boy's dream uptight, but vocal about how he wants his towel. Dare to encroach on Wimbledon wonder Tim Henman's space, and he'll flip. James Blake, in contrast, is a true gentleman. "Gosh" and "darn" are the closest this Harvard man comes to profanity; even his racket toss is gentle.
My road to ball boydom was long and checkered. As far back as I remember, I've lived to the rhythm of bouncing balls and the whisper of racket swings. At five, I met Jimmy Connors at Forest Hills; in high school, I snuck onto Flushing Meadows' center court to taste the legends' scene.
When it was clear I'd never make it to Wimbledon on my forehand, I tried out to be a ball boy. One of a handful over age 18 and a very few over 25 I dashed before the net like a jitterbug, scooped the ball with two hands, stopped on a dime, stood like a Buckingham Palace guard ... and showed off my arm whenever I could.
Like most attempts at greatness, my early efforts failed. At the ripe old age of 28, I joined the ranks of Kenny Kramer, the inspiration for Seinfeld's lanky clown. I was a failed ball boy with no support group, no retirement plan, and no sitcom deal. But five years later, I tried again. Despite a mortifying debut in which I knocked a ball around á la Bill Buckner, I was redeemed by my strong throws, and invited back for qualifying rounds.
The "qualies" are a grueling battle for respect, with umpires and ball boys in a Rodney Dangerfield preamble, battling for spots in the main draw. My first match was on Court 18, the US Open's Siberia a sun-drenched, bug-infested, green concrete island for no-name players and, apparently, no-name ball boys.
I was so tense that even the 12-year-old beside me a four-year ball-boy veteran noticed. "Don't be nervous," he said, poking his head at my chest. After the match, he took me aside for advice: I was blocking the last letter of the sponsor's name, emblazoned on the back fence. "You can get in trouble for that."
As a ball boy, you can get in trouble for a lot of things. Throughout the four days of qualies, evaluators circled the courts. One told me my short toss was "frightening." Puzzled, I tried an effeminate flick. Sweat ran down my forehead; pollen sailed through my sinuses. "You're fidgeting before the server serves," another evaluator snapped.
The night following the qualies, I felt like a "Survivor" contestant awaiting the tribal council. In the morning, I was accepted into the main draw but exiled, again, to the hinterlands of Court 18, where two feisty, but unknown tennis players Slimane Saoudi and Ivo Heuberger were hurling rackets and insults. In an odd twist of grace, Heuberger, despite his rage, whispered "thank you" each time I tossed him a ball or snagged him a towel.
It is the ball boy's mission to be as impartial as an umpire and as subservient as hired help but without the authority of one or the allegiance of the other. By the fifth-set tie breaker, nearly everyone had gone home. And though I wanted to clap after Heuberger's final point, I stood motionless.
I was a ball boy, after all invisible, efficient, unflinching. But a ball boy extraordinaire: I heard I'm up for ball-boy rookie of the year.