When tennis greats take the court each year at the US Open, they aren’t the only examples of athletic prowess inside the jam-packed stadiums at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. On the sidelines are ball people of all ages ready to sprint, throw, catch, and retrieve with the stealth of wildcats. And because of the athletic skills required, not everyone makes it to the tournament. (Search: What workout will amp up my tennis skills?) In June, nearly 600 hopefuls tried out for ball person positions, though the United States Tennis Association staffs the event with only about 270 ball chasers each summer. Here, we got the scoop on what it takes to make the cut.
Commitment to Conditioning
Whether it’s your first year at the Open or your 15th, preparation can set you apart.
When August rolls around, Margaret Swartz, a 10-year veteran ball person and supervisor at the Open, knows it’s time to start adding a few tennis drills to her marathon training. In the weeks leading up to the tournament, Swartz, an avid runner and former high school and college softball player, throws a tennis ball at the beach or in an open field, beginning with short distances and then taking two steps back every 10 throws or so. She also mixes sprints into her marathon training because her work on the court is much different from endurance running. “If I am doing the net position, it’s a start-and-stop motion,” she says. “Usually the first day that I do my ball person job instead of supervising, I’m very sore, no matter what I do to prepare.” (Related: Home Remedies for Fitness Aches and Pains)
John [last name withheld], a 14-year-old rookie ball person who’s played tennis for 7 years, mixes conditioning for the Open into his regular tennis practices. “I decided that I was going to do a little bit of practice on my own—picking up the ball with two hands, running back and forth and touching some lines,” he says.
Working courtside is a little more complicated than a high-pressure game of fetch. During tryouts, potential ball people audition for net or base positions—or both. At the net, ball persons are positioned at the sides of the court to retrieve trapped balls and gather dead balls. They then feed the balls to the baseline by rolling them alongside the ends of the court after a point is scored. At the bases—the spots just off each corner of the court—the ball person’s job is to retrieve balls from the net and toss them back to the server, based on the player’s preference.
During tryouts for net and base positions, hopefuls are scored as they perform a series of drills: baseline-to-baseline throws, catches, and running as they retrieve down-the-court and crosscourt balls. “We’re looking for speed, agility, awareness—you have to be constantly attentive to what’s happening in the match as well as player needs, and [be able] to run quickly and pick up the ball without having butterfingers,” says Tina Taps, the US Open’s director of ball persons. “Basically, you’re thinking fast on your feet while you’re in motion.” (Related: 4 Running Drills That Will Kick Your Butt)
It’s also important to do these tasks quietly and be light-footed. “The job of a ball person is not to be noticed,” says Swartz. “When the job is done well, we make it look easy.”
Still, there’s nothing easy about obsessive vigilance. “When you take a break during a changeover, you still need to make sure everyone has drinks,” says John, who worked his first match on Tuesday. “It’s that aspect of always being attentive. One silly move and you could trip over a ball or fumble.”
It’s no surprise that tennis players are often selected as ball people, because they have thorough knowledge of the game, but event organizers also look for other types of athletes with specific skill sets. “When we hear that [a ball person] plays baseball, we’re excited,” says Taps, explaining that baseball and softball players usually excel in full-court throws.
Still, there are differences between the baseball diamond and the tennis court. “A baseball is heavier than a tennis ball and doesn’t travel through the air as nicely, so it’s a bit of an adjustment,” says Taps.