USTA Southern California is pleased to welcome US Open ballperson Jason Maikis to our coverage of the final Grand Slam of 2019. A native of New Jersey, Jason comes to UCLA this fall and will keep an eye on the SoCal collegiate tennis scene. Before he heads west, Jason will give us a first-hand look at the US Open experience through the eyes of a tournament ballperson. Just don’t call him a “ballkid”. It’s ballPERSON, and it’s one of the great opportunities for tennis fans of all ages to become part of the nation’s most prolific tennis event.
Thursday, September 5: The View From Here
I’ve played tennis and watched professional tennis for years, but there are some things you can only learn on court with the players.
One thing that’s hard to see in many matches unless you’re closely watching and interacting with the player is how much the crowd affects them. Of course we all remember how Jimmy Connors rode the wave of New York energy to a semifinal in 1991, or even Daniil Medvedev’s, um, interesting relationship with the US Open crowd this year. However, match in and match out, many players’ on-court mood can be swayed by their crowd and its antics.
The most prevalent is always the country crowd; American players see love almost everywhere they go. But, countries like Canada, South Korea, and Argentina have also brought raucous crowds to the outer courts, and it really helps players who may not be playing their best or are in a dispute with the chair umpire.
Besides being known for its rowdy crowds, the US Open also brings another challenge for players: heat. The Australian Open and Wimbledon can both be guilty of this too, but the heat in Flushing pretty regularly hurts all the players.
Anyone can see the 90° on the thermometer and say it must be gross and humid, but until someone sits out on the Deco Turf that radiates heat on each and every court, it is impossible to empathize with the level of heat these players are dealing with while they play. If a player is going to make a good run at the US Open — especially playing on the outer courts — they have to be able to handle the heat.
But the biggest part of the on court experience is noticing the distances the players cover. On TV tennis courts look small, and even watching from the stands it’s hard to register exactly how far they’re going. But as a ballperson you see it differently.
Daniil Medvedev (Getty Images)
When a blazing forehand is coming down the line to you, and the player on your side is at the opposite side of the court, it takes all of your restraint to keep your hands behind your back. It looks like the ball is going to hit you. It’s coming in with topspin after being smacked off the racket of the other player. Yet almost every time that happens the players use their superhuman anticipation and movement to track the ball down for a defensive slice or lob.
When a cocky friend says they could hit and track balls like the pro, or that the player is being a baby about the heat, tell them to watch a professional tennis match from on the court. Only then can someone appreciate the crowd’s energy, the intense heat, and the players’ incredible court coverage.
Friday, August 30: A Day in the Life
Like everyone else, US Open ballpersons get up each morning and put our shorts on one leg at a time. But that might be where the similarities of a typical work day end.
After being directed by every which way by the US Open parking attendants, I get to park my car fifteen minutes from the entrance to the Billie Jean King Tennis Center. After entering through a US Open employee-designated security line, ballpersons all report to our headquarters located in Louis Armstrong Stadium.
As soon as I’m arrive every morning there are three things I always do. First, I put my phone, wallet, keys, etc into my locker for the day. Next, I clock in to start my working hours (gotta earn that bread). And finally, the most crucial part of preparation – sunscreen. Forgetting to apply a healthy layer every morning can… cause some issues for my ghostly skin.
Then comes the wait. Every ballperson on shift crowds in to await the announcement of who is going to what court. When a ballperson is assigned to a court, it’s likely they’ll be there most, if not all, of the day. So, the early announcement of the court dictates whether a ballperson will be watching Roger Federer and Serena Williams or multiple doubles matches between unseeded teams.
After the other ballpersons and I are on court for an hour, we get relieved by another crew for an hour before we return to the same court to relieve them for an hour, and so on and so forth. In the downtime, ballpersons eat, cool down inside, or watch other tennis matches. Me? I write these diary entries!
Throughout the day any number of different things can happen. Walking through Louis Armstrong to go to the ballpersons room I see top-seeded players stretching in the halls before a match. Maybe a player on my court will ask me to run a racquet to Ashe to be restrung in the middle of play (if you see less than six ballpersons on a big court this is likely the case).
When day turns to night things get interesting. In New York, workers under 18 cannot work more than eight hours in a day, which means when dinner time rolls around, the ballpersons that started working at 10 and 11 A.M. have to leave.
This year is my second year as a ballperson, and my second being 18 years or older, so I usually get the privilege of working late into the night when matches go long. It’s all fun and games until a match on court 14 decides to be 5 sets and lasts until midnight.
After a long day of sprinting around a tennis court, staying cool, and trying to avoid a bad sunburn, I leave New York ready (and excited!) to be back the next day to start the cycle all over again.
Wednesday, August 28: The Aura of Nadal
While the Spaniard’s name can strike fear into the hearts of his opponents, it gives US Open ballpersons a different reaction.
When I was assigned to a crew for Rafael Nadal’s night session match in Arthur Ashe Stadium Tuesday, I had to take a deep breath and remember what I was on court to do. It’s easy to stand awe-struck at the 18-time major champion while he uses his absurd topspin groundstrokes to bludgeon an opponent into submission, but as a ballperson I had a job to do.
Nadal is notorious for his use of towels on the men’s tennis, bringing two out to the court after every changeover. And his rituals are well-known too, including his insistence on not walking to his bench until both towels are given to him.
Ashe Stadium’s court level walls were also recently changed to being full screens with no padding; when players hit as hard as Nadal and his opponent John MIllman were, balls were flying around the court so much it felt like a constant chase for the snitch from Harry Potter’s game of quidditch.
With the combination of Nadal’s towel and the new Ashe walls, the match was a constant sprint. And yes that’s a good thing. I’m not speaking for all ballpersons, but in my experience, standing on a court for a long time is far worse than constantly sprinting.
However, the real treat of working a night match on Arthur Ashe is the atmosphere.
I’ve worked matches all over the grounds of the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center, been on court with Americans, Canadians, and so many other countries that I can’t keep count. Tennis fans that are all in on supporting their fellow countrymen are always some of the highlights of my US Open, but nowhere can you find more than 20,000 rabid fans except Arthur Ashe.
When the match is creeping closer and closer to match point, the time in between points sounds more like Rafa’s fans are cheering at a concert rather than a tennis match. Watching his fans rabidly scream for Rafa to hit one of four signed tennis balls in their direction, it’s hard to do anything but smile.
Rafael Nadal provides the craziest atmosphere for fans and ballpersons I’ve ever witnessed, although I haven’t been on court with Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, or either Williams sister. I guess that means there’s even more fun to be had!
Thanks for reading, and tune in Friday for my next piece about a typical day in the life for a US Open ballperson!
Monday, August 26: Meet Jason!
Hi everyone! I’m Jason Maikis, a new USTA SoCal contributor, and for the next few weeks, I’ll be giving a look into my experience as a ballperson at the US Open.
This will be my second year in Flushing Meadows as a ballperson, although I have spent my fair share of years prior roaming the concourse as a fan. Growing up in New Jersey as a tennis fan, the US Open has always been the destination, so after my senior year of high school last year, I decided to try my hand at the only way I could be a part of the action — which certainly wasn’t playing my way in.
The ballperson tryouts are open to the general public and require a quick testing of a person’s ability to anticipate, run to retrieve a ball, and roll the ball quickly and accurately. For a good laugh, check out this year’s ill-fated, comedic attempt by a sportscaster trying out to be a ballperson.
After a few rounds of callbacks, the final group is chosen to go along with the ballpeople returning from the year before. In the weeks leading up to the Open, each ballperson is required to go through a series of trainings to re-up their skills and learn the updated facets of ballpersoning. For instance, in my first year, the US Open was transitioning to rolling the ball from one side of the court to the other instead of throwing the ball.
All in all, the ballperson experience is unlike anything I can really describe. Being on court with the players and seeing the nuances of how they behave and perform is an experience that would delight any tennis fan. I have a lot more to share as the tournament goes on, and I hope you all enjoy reading my experiences as much as I enjoy living them!
Look for Wednesday’s next update…