Try these drills to find out if you have the stamina, agility and coordination to work a professional tennis match.
Although they are commonly referred to as “member kids,” there’s no maximum age limit to be a member person. Brian Auerbach of Temecula, Calif., became a member person in 2009 at the age of 28 when the teenagers he was chaperoning convinced him to try out. He has worked at the summer Grand Slam tennis tournament almost every year since. This year’s US Open ends Sept. 11.
“It was really very surprising to me that there was no age limit,” said Auerbach, now a 41-year-old US Open Ball Crew supervisor. “I had no idea that I could be a ballboy at the US Open, which turned out to be a dream come true.”
Being a ball person requires a lot of bending, lunging, squatting and standing — as well as the ability to sprint around the court in hot and humid conditions, all while remaining inconspicuous.
This year, about half of the 300-person ball crew have done the job before, and the rest came from a pool of 850 online applicants, said Tiahnne Noble, director of the US Open Ball Crew. About 450 people were invited to the June tryouts based on the strength of their applications. Having a tennis background helps, but it’s no guarantee. Baseball players, who often are skilled at throwing and catching, are solid candidates, as are runners, who have stamina, Auerbach said. “We may not look for all those things in one person, but all of those things are good indicators of somebody that might be good at this job,” he said.
Can you make the cut? Satoshi Ochi, the head strength and conditioning coach for the US Tennis Association, recommends trying out for a future tournament only if you can run a mile comfortably without stopping. “It doesn’t have to be a super fast pace,” he said. But “if you cannot continuously jog or run a mile distance, that’s going to be an issue.”
Once you’re ready, put on your tennis shoes and try these drills. You just might have what it takes to make the crew.
To practice rolling, take three balls and stand at the baseline in the doubles alley. Roll the balls quickly down the alley towards the net. The key is to keep the balls low and flat, with minimal bounce. Position your body as if you’re doing a lunge.
Focus on getting low, said Joey Ramsey, a ball person co-chair at the Citi Open tennis tournament in DC and a 2016 US Open ball person. “That’s going to help minimize the bounciness and improve your accuracy rather than firing from the hip and creating a very bouncy roll,” he said.
For catching, have a partner roll three balls towards you. Don’t try to catch a ball with one hand. Instead, Ramsey trains ball people to squat and position their hands, palms facing out, to create a “backboard.”
“If you try to catch the ball top down and you miss, it’s going through and going through your legs,” he said.
Being a ball person often requires quick bursts of speed. When Auerbach is evaluating agility, he’s looking at the speed of the person’s first two steps, and likens it to a basketball player trying to get to the hoop. “Those first two steps mean everything,” he said.
To test your speed, try these two drills. First, position three balls on the court — near the net, on the service line, and in between the service line and the baseline. Now sprint to collect one ball at a time, returning to the baseline each time. “There’s no particular [goal] time,” Noble said. “We just want them to get it done as quickly as possible.”
Next, stand near the net and have a person hit balls into the net. If that person hits a ball into the net on the half nearest to you, sprint to pick up the ball with both hands and then sprint back to your original position. If the ball is hit to the farther half of the net, sprint to pick up the ball and run towards the other side of the net. Use two hands to scoop up the ball. If the ball is hit over the net, do not move. The point is not yet over.
“Every drop is a delay in match play,” Ramsey said.
“Servicing” means tossing balls to the serving player. It can be challenging because professional tennis players differ in height. Reilly Opelka stands at 6-foot-11, while Diego Schwartzman is 5-foot-7. Position yourself near the back of the court and have a partner stand with a racket near the baseline. Hold three balls between your two hands up at shoulder height and elbows bent. When the server signals for the ball, your job is to bounce it to the player. Noble recommends that you aim the ball about three-quarters of the way to the player and the ball should reach around their waist height.
“Point your elbow to where you want the ball to go,” she said.
Don’t bounce at the players’ feet and don’t throw it sidearm. “If that ball rides on because your bounce wasn’t good enough, one of your teammates is going to have to cover for you and pick up that ball that’s just now laying out in the middle of the court,” Ramsey said.
Be ready to catch the balls the player rejects.
Once you’re picked, you’ll become part of a six-person crew on each court as either a net or back.
There are six ball people on the court during match play. The four backs are located on each corner of the court, and their job is to toss balls to the serving player. The two net positions kneel at opposite ends of the net and are responsible for collecting the balls after the point is over and rolling them to the back positions. The net position requires plenty of sprinting back and forth.
Before the 2018 US Open, ball people would throw the balls overhand between positions, but organizers changed the rule to underhand rolls in an attempt to attract a wider group of applicants. Since the pandemic, US Open member people are also no longer required to handle the players’ towels, another responsibility that demanded sprinting.
At the US Open, the ball crew is typically on the court for 90 minutes, followed by a break of the same time. Member people ages 18 and up can work matches all day and into the night. The US Open Ball Crew requires that member people work four days of the qualifying tournament and at least 10 days of the main draw.
“This is something I love doing,” Auerbach said. “The fact that we’re not limited by age here, that somebody who is in their 30s, 40s, 50s … can come out and try out and do this, I think is a really awesome thing.”
Design by Chelsea Conrad.