Misadventures in Ball Boy Land: Don’t Try to Catch a Pro’s Serve @ATPChallenger
Steve Fogleman, Tennis Atlantic
(Charlottesville, VA–October 31) Getting destroyed by tennis pros on court while competing for the US Open National Playoffs five years ago wasn’t enough for me. I wanted more, and yesterday I did something I should have done 40 years ago: I was a ball boy. I don’t want to sugarcoat it by calling myself a ball person, because I was a boy out there.
I’ve been to the Charlottesville Challenger every year since 2012, and I guess I wanted to mix it up a little for my seventh installment of the tournament. I responded to a call on the Challenger’s Facebook page for ball people and noticed that they had very few volunteers during the school week. I signed up and watched a couple of YouTube videos about how to be the best ball boy ever. The only thing I remember from the videos was how to hold the towel on the edges so the players don’t have to touch your hands. It turns out that was wasted knowledge in a Challenger. I donned my red ball boy shirt and no sooner that I had, I ran into top seed Tennys Sandgren. After we greeted each other, he said, “So you’re chasing down balls all week?’ I told him it was, sadly, a half-day gig. Then I went down to the court and got a comprehensive crash course from Ball Person Coordinator Maureen O’Shea. The biggest two rules were: do nothing between a first and second serve and always keep looking at your fellow ball people and the player on your side. She explained that with so many college players in the ranks of the challengers, these guys were just happy you were retrieving their balls. And they could care less how you held a towel out to them. And as you may already know, the bulk of the “work” for a ball person occurs when the player on their side of the court is serving. Then you’re expected to do towel work and ball retrieving, which is more challenging than it sounds.
I was served the Frederik Nielsen-Edward Corrie qualifying final. As a forty-eight year old, there was no way my knees were camping out in front of the net for a few hours, so I opted for the baseline. The first thing I noticed was when my player was returning serve. The balls are headed for your own private orbs at 120 miles per hour and the first several times a serve was headed my way, I flinched and moved, forgetting that the player in front of me was going to intercept at least 90% of those shots for an attempted return. I learned to dodge the balls that got through. During the second set, I decided to stop dodging the balls and try to catch them instead. Less bending over would be nice. That was a mistake. I caught a Nielsen first serve that had to be over 120 mph. I immediately felt a pain in my hand but tried to ignore it. I made sure to never try to catch another one.
I’m sure many a 9-year-old could teach you like a pro at this, but it was a sensory overload for me. You’re handing the player the towel while balls are rolling at you from all directions as the player on your side of the net prepares to begin his service game. Nielsen was a big ball-checker. He wanted to examine all four balls before each serve and then he’d kick back one or more. The players will not make eye contact with you before tossing the unwanted ball back, so, once again, you’ve got to pay attention. And in a tournament like Charlottesville’s, it’s even more difficult because you have matches and practices going on all around you. I heard the crowd gasping during a long rally on the adjoining court and kept looking over before realizing that I would get beaned in the face if I didn’t pay attention to my own match. With my short-attention span, this was invariably the toughest part of the gig.
Another difficulty I noticed as a tennis fan was controlling the urge to clap after a great shot. I had to stop myself a few times. No one was closer to the action with some of these great returns and I was happy I’d left my phone off court because I would not have been able to resist the urge to tweet during my on court duties. I love the front row and I’ve been in the photographers pit at other tournaments before, but this was a ridiculously good view. You’re making eye contact with the players every 30 seconds. You get a better view of the players than their opponents do.
Another strange distraction was finding myself rooting for the players to finish the match. The Chair umpire sits all match. The linesmen get to sit down occasionally. The players get their Hollywood Producer folding chairs for changeovers. But no, the ball people have to stand all day. The breaks between sets never seemed so long in my life. I mean, it seemed like they could have run 100 commercials in between those sets, if that were actually a thing and fans were watching a challenger qualifying final on a major television network.
Nielsen won the first set, 6-4 and went up a break in the second. I started thinking the end was near. Corrie was in a bad mood, and cursed at the people walking on the catwalk above his opponent as he prepared to serve. But then Nielsen blew a couple of match points and Corrie had squeaked through the second set tiebreak at 6. I remember feeling relieved when the chair announced, “final set”.
Now Corrie had a swagger and Nielsen, who had been even-tempered throughout, started losing it. He talked to himself, yelled at no one, and when he gave up an early break in the third, he smashed a racket 3 feet away from me. This wasn’t a toss or a smack: he spiked it into the court with hundreds of pounds of thrust, as if to make sure it was dead and never coming back to life.
After Corrie was issued an obscenity warning, Nielsen fired back, “I already thought he got one earlier!” The chair indicated that Corrie had only been “accosted” for the first one but that didn’t seem to be any solace for Nielsen. Nielsen himself dropped some F-bombs in the third, but quietly enough to only treat the ball people into the demons in his head.
When it was over, Nielsen put the racket in the little trash can behind the umpire chair and strutted off as mad as hell. It must feel like such a waste to win two qualifying matches at an ATP Challenger, only to blow a lead in the final and walk away with nothing. As for the smashed racket, tournament organizers quickly removed it from the bin and took it away from plain sight, as if not to encourage such further behavior to those who would witness the mangled mess.
I always love to hate on the players when I hear of ball person abuse at the majors. I could find no such mistreatment in my match. They were good to us, even during the low points of their endeavor.
I didn’t get a chance to think about my hand again until after the match, but when I did, I found a big bruise on my thumb. From a tennis ball! Well, not just any tennis ball, but one served up by a Wimbledon Mixed Doubles champion. Wow, I’m so out of shape, I thought, I can even get injured doing ball boy work. It feels fine a day later but I felt it yesterday. No big whoop. Honored to serve. And it happened in the line of duty. The tonic my physician prescribed at the brewery down the road made it all better.
All I know is this: ball kids, you’re awesome. You have to be laser-focused at all times on court or else you’ll get a dirty look from someone, or worse, you’ll get hit—hard. I will never look at you the same way again. You make it look easy. And like most things in life, it’s a hell of a lot harder than it looks.
UPDATE: And oh, yeah, everything anyone ever does ends up on the internet now.