Every young tennis player has that dream, right? You’re out there on a massive stadium court, with the world’s greatest player on the other side of the net. They toss the ball in the air, snap the racket forward for a kick serve wide to the forehand side, but the ball hits the net cord and dribbles back down—that’s when you spring into action, sprinting out to grab the ball, then racing to the other side of the court and crouching back into position.
My original plan, of course, was to join the hallowed ranks of those who’d served, swung, and raised the trophies above their heads. But seeing as my competitive tennis career came to a, shall we say, natural conclusion somewhere between 16-and-under and 18-and-under tournaments (credit where credit is due, though, please: You are reading the writing of one half of the doubles team that took second place in the North Dakota Juniors Open a long, long time ago), serving as a ballperson would seem to be my best bet to reach tennis’s big leagues—albeit through a side door.
I do have a small bit of job experience, as it were. As a kid, before I got serious about the game myself, I manned the courts for my brother Steve’s matches, for which I was paid in post-match Dairy Queen milkshakes. For a while, it seemed I had found my true calling, but then I just had to go and pick up a racket (though I was my own ballperson, having no conscripts, younger sibling or otherwise, and no means by which to pay for their milkshakes).
Fast-forward to a few decades later—just a couple of months ago, in fact—when I learned that the United States Tennis Association would be holding open tryouts for US Open ballpersons. On the appointed day, I hop the 7 train out to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens, spending the subway journey trying to get my head in the right place. But how complicated could this really be? They hit the ball; you get the ball. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Waiting around outside Court 7, though, I get butterflies when I realize the obviousness of the task at hand: I’m about to be given a simple but very precise physical challenge, which I am to complete at high speed and to utter perfection in front of an array of spectators, fellow competitors, and professional judges. First, though, I’m handed the official 2019 US Open ballperson uniform by Ralph Lauren: a fetching red, blue, yellow, and green ensemble woven from yarn made of recycled plastic bottles (each piece might contain around seven bottles), part of the company’s commitment to incorporate 170 million recycled plastic bottles in its products and packaging by 2025.
So I look the part—and though I had feared I may actually be too old for the part, I quickly learn from Tina Taps, the US Open’s ballperson director since 1989, that between 500 and 600 people from the ages of 14 to 65 try out each year. I am, let’s say, on the higher end of this demographic; more precisely, I’m not really a Nadal-or-Federer guy (or a Naomi-or-Serena guy); I’m a Borg-or-McEnroe guy (or a Chrissie-or-Martina guy). Of those 500 or 600, about 150 make it through. Would I be one of them?
Nervously, I ask the guy next to me, who seems to be here in some kind of official capacity (he turns out to be Patrick Mitsch, a communications guru with the USTA) if anyone ever, you know, just fails these tryouts. “Yeah,” he says, with absolutely no hesitation whatsoever. “It’s just kind of a general agility and hand-eye coordination thing, but yeah—some people get out there and try to throw the ball and can’t hit the broad side of a barn.”
But it’s go time. Cathie Delaney, the assistant director of ballpersons at the Open, who will be putting us through most of our paces today, explains what’s about to happen and what’s expected of us.
“When the last player entering the court puts their bag down, that’s the signal for the ballpersons to go into their burst and run into their positions,” she says. “Also, the players on the court are going to be purposely missing—don’t think they’re bad tennis players.” I laugh nervously. Nobody else does. “And remember: There’s no rolling balls between first and second serves.” A lifetime of watching pro tennis, and somehow this is still news to me. “Always pay attention to the score—among many other reasons, to always have the balls directed to the server’s side. The only time there’s throwing is to the player—or exchanging balls in the back if one player has too many balls.”
Then: “Are you guys ready?” Someone among us prospective ballpersons says—with that bravado either borne of insecurity or a confidence bordering on cockiness—“Born ready.” I roll my eyes with everything I’ve got.
“Born ready—uh huh,” Delaney says. “I’ve heard that one before.” Be still my heart!
Taps explains a few general principles—where to stand, starting by the net, and how: hands behind back, poised to move—and then asks, cheerily, “Who’s ready? Who wants to go first?” Assuming, perhaps, that a front-row-student kind of eagerness will comprise part of our score, I shoot my hand up. It’s only then when I realize that us prospective ballpersons are not going to be working the court as a team; we are (read: I am) going to be out here on our own in front of everybody, one at a time. Gulp.
For starters: “If the ball hits the net on your side of the centerline,” Delaney says, “grab it and run back to where you are; if it lands on the other side of the centerline, grab it and keep going to the other side of the court.” My first grab-and-gos seem easy: I spring out, get my arms down low, and grab the ball (with two hands—something I’d overheard earlier when eavesdropping on the chatter of a couple of USTA people), then get to my next spot, stat. If we’re between a first serve and a second serve, I hold on to the ball. If we’re between points, I roll the ball to the ballperson in the back on the server’s side (all balls are directed toward the side of the net where the server is).
I hadn’t realized how important the simple rolling of a ball along the ground would be, but it quickly becomes apparent that years of childhood bowling leagues are doing me great favors here—I’m able to roll three balls from the net area to a ballperson in back in very quick succession, with something approaching pinpoint accuracy. “Are you a bowler?” Taps asks. “Because you’re really good at rolling.” Department of Small Victories—check! We do another battery of these simple (to me) drills, and while I can’t deign to say just how my overall speed, grace, and savoir faire is being judged, my precision and focus simply cannot be argued with.
And just then, when I’m riding high, a fail: Delaney ups the level of difficulty by explaining the sort of shot—let’s picture a master server like Serena—that hits the net cord at the very top of the net and bounces farther back into and perhaps across the court rather unevenly. Then she simulates the shot, and I’m off to the races in a mad dash to grab that ball before it—God forbid—catches the attention of the player and forces him or her to make a decision about it. Pick up their own ball? At the US Open? That’s why I’m here! But I fumble the ball, and while my body’s still moving forward at high speed, my cargo isn’t secured. I have to double back, grab it, then seek shelter next to the ballperson on the back fence while passing the ball surreptitiously behind my back to her.
“Let’s try that again,” Delaney says, with the sort of forced smile that completes the sentence for her, so she doesn’t have to. (“Because you sure messed that one up.”) Another simulated errant shot off the net cord; another mad dash. This time I’ve got the requisite sticky fingers and secure the ball, sprint to the back fence, and do the stealthy behind-back routine with a bit more grace.
Shortly thereafter, my audition seems to be over. Tina shakes my hand and tells me, “You’ll definitely be among the top echelon in your group.” I’m worried about the future imperative tense. Is this my consolation prize? In any case, I’m given a quick version of the “We’ll be in touch” talk and take my place back in the stands to see how my rivals match up. Obviously, I’m wishing all of them great success out there, in the manner of all great sportspersons. But wow—did I really look as preternaturally goofy as the 30-something guy after me? Or as deer-in-the-headlights panicked as the 20-something woman after him? My confidence suddenly surges. I’m seeing some fast hands out there, but not a lot of fast feet.
Suddenly I’m picturing the stands of Court 7 filled with hundreds of fans, their attention focused on—well, not on me, exactly, but maybe a thrilling early-round match. (I’m not quite possessed of the hubris to think they’re going to put the new guy on something like a Federer-Nadal final.) The server tosses the ball on a crucial breakpoint, swings...boom! The ball hits the net, rolls back into the court at high speed, and I’m off. And you know what I do? I nail that ball down, return to my post, and roll it to the back-fence ballperson with the precision of a zen-master archer breathing steadily and calmly as he slowly releases the arrow on its journey to the center of the bull’s-eye.
All of which is to say: No. No, they never called me.
The 2019 US Open ends on September 8.
Originally Appeared on Vogue