By Nicholas J. Walz, USOpen.org
FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. – It’s harder than it looks.
That was the general consensus that hundreds shared as they sprinted, threw and vied for a chance to become a US Open ballperson at the 2014 US Open Ballperson Tryouts on Thursday afternoon at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
The group ranged in ages of 14 to some into their 30s and 40s, clad in dark blue Polo shirts and chasing a dream on a sunny afternoon at the home of the US Open. Some arrived in the early morning, camping out at the East Gate. Over their shoulders, Arthur Ashe Stadium gleamed in the background; for the best, it’s where they’ll find themselves later this summer.
One of those participants was U.S. Army veteran Laura Ortiz. The 44-year-old flew in from Miami for her chance to be part of the Open. Six years ago, Ortiz lost her right leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident. Since then, she has run two triathlons on one leg but found the cross-court throwing to be a challenge.
“I’d really like another shot at this, because I know I can be better,” said Ortiz, fresh from her audition on Court 11 as hundreds watched on. “You find out real quickly that this takes practice – how to approach the ball and make everything look clean and precise. And then you think about bigger crowds, hotter days and I definitely now have a greater respect for the challenges of being a ballperson.”
Tina Taps, Manager of Tennis Programs at the Tennis Center and the US Open Director of Ballpersons, has headed up the judging contingent each year since 1989. Of the 359 registered participants, Taps explained, around 150 will be invited for a callback in July. From that remaining group, between 70 and 80 hopefuls will make the team.
"It’s always competitive each year – I like to think it’s because we’re offering such an exciting role for these participants," said Taps. “Those we take will become part of the 2014 US Open, the greatest tennis tournament of the year. It’s a story they can fondly reflect upon forever.”
After a shot demonstration from Taps’ crew – many of whom are returning ballpersons, having once lined up for their shot in years past – the candidates were directed to the US Open outer courts. Their options were to work the net, the back wall, or for the most ambitious, both roles. The most difficult task for most appeared to be waiting for play to stop, jumping out the retrieve balls too early.
“You have to be patient or you’ll make mistakes and look foolish,” said Joey Keane, a 16-year-old from Hempstead, N.Y., who tried out for net duty.
“This is a role for athletes who want to challenge themselves, for sure – you earn this job,” said Cathie Delaney, Assistant Manager of US Open Ballpersons and Tennis Professional at the Tennis Center. “There’s an art to standing out and being a good ballperson and not standing out at the same time, working matches and being consistently good. I’m hoping we found a few keepers today.”