It was 1978, and the U.S. Open was coming to Flushing Meadows. My friend was a ball boy the previous year at Forest Hills and said, “Why don't you try out this year.” I said, “Sign me up!”
The next thing I know, I'm standing at net watching two guys hit the ball and waiting for them to hit it into the net. I was a fast kid, so when they did make an error, I sprinted, picked up the ball and threw it to the ball person in the back court. A few days later, I was given a Fred Perry outfit and was officially a U.S. Open ball boy. I'm writing this article, not just to reminisce about my childhood, but to encourage all tennis juniors to look into trying out to be a ball person for this year’s US Open.
A ball person is the lowest on the totem poll. They are the ones who grab a player’s towel, run down to the stringer’s room, picking up new rackets, and sometimes, holds an umbrella over a player's head. Their primary function is to remain invisible and pick up balls. They are on their feet all day and have very little rest. With all this said, it was one of the most memorable childhood experiences I ever had.
The ball persons sit on the steps between Louis Armstrong Stadium and the grandstand. It's not a bad seat as you can watch both courts. One morning, I was there early and was able to watch Jimmy Connors warm up. He had a match later in the day. He hit crosscourt forehands for 20 min., crosscourt backhands for 20 min. and then worked on his volley and overhead for 20 min. It was incredible how clean he hit the ball. That's what I loved about being a ball boy. You got to watch your childhood heroes play up close. You were part of the action. You got to hang out in the locker room, occasionally deliver a message to Bud Collins, and most importantly, helped all the matches run smoothly. As a ball person, you are always on the court. They'll be friends waiving to you, yelling to get your attention and rooting you on to do a good job. Once your match is complete, you feel a sense of achievement and look forward to the next match.
I served as a ball boy for several great players. I had the privilege to run down balls for Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Roscoe Tanner, Virginia Wade and Ilie Nastase. It was amazing to learn about their personalities and habits on the court. I could see how Nastase got his nick name "Nasty.” He was a maniac on the court, yelling at the line judges every chance he can get. He was very nice to the ball persons, though. Every time I would give him his towel, he would say, “Thanks kid.” McEnroe was pretty cool too. He is always complimentary to the ball persons when he is on the air covering the U.S. Open. I always smile when a player thanks the ball persons. Some players don’t realize that without the ball persons, they would chasing their own tennis balls. The ball persons are a true value to the ATP and WTA tours.
It's been 30 years since I've been on those steps and the wonderful experiences will stay with me forever. If you enjoy being part of the action and watching great tennis, look into being a ball person at this year’s U.S. Open. It will be an experience of a lifetime. Good luck at the tryouts.