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On June 21, ahead of the 2018 US Open ballperson tryouts, the USTA made the surprise announcement that US Open ball people will no longer throw, but, rather, roll the balls from end to end of the tennis court. Having spent 11 years as a ballperson at the US Open and several other tournaments, from Madison Square Garden to Central Park, the announcement came as a bit of a shock. With a teenage daughter trying out for one of 300 coveted ballperson jobs, I took the opportunity to visit tryouts this year. Seeing old friends, talking about the announcement, taking the temperature of the veteran ballperson corps, I found folks having none of it.
The USTA and Open staff have always boasted the best ballperson crew in the world. Much of the excellence and efficiency that ATP and WTA Tour players have come to appreciate in US Open ball people stems from the ability to zip balls around the court, providing players an extra beat (and one less distraction) to focus on the next point. Having attended the first two days of qualifying at Flushing Meadows this week, the difference is stark. Even a well-managed Court 11 ballperson crew with athletic veterans and standout rookies could not hide the limitations of rolling the ball from end to end. On Court 17, the new serve clock, ticking at each end of the court, does the rolling process no favors. What’s funny about ball people rolling the balls, 1-2-3, to a middleman at the net, who then turns and rolls them the rest of the way; one is hard-pressed to imagine a less efficient, more unimpressive way of moving balls around a court. Not only does rolling wear out the balls faster and add more dirt to the felt, the process takes eons.
If you watch these things carefully, as I am conditioned to do, the most common television image between points at Wimbledon is that of a player standing, watching the ballkid pick balls off the ground, waiting for a ball to use in the next point. This happens repeatedly, even on the premiere courts. It’s no different at the French Open. It simply takes more time for players to be served when ballkids have to field rolling grounders. This has to rub the veteran ball-ninjas in Flushing the wrong way; to take such pride in their swift delivery, only to be told we’re going to conform to the European standard. Are we not living in Trump’s America?! We’re supposed to be winning, not succumbing to the French. We throw the ball 120 feet, not two 18.288 meter legs, on a roll.
Previously, the US Open was the only Grand Slam tennis tournament where ball people threw the ball. Video of the first US Open, 50 years ago, on grass, shows the ball people (looking pretty chill) throwing perfect strikes on one hop and then waiting for the players (Ashe and Okker), not the other way around. Quick hands, a strong and accurate arm, alert eyes, and the ability to not attract attention have always been the hallmarks of a great US Open ballperson. Like today, the ball people who swept the net of errant serves in 1968 were fleet and agile. As the 2018 main draw kicks off on Monday, the USTA has unwittingly introduced an agent of inefficiency to the flow of matches. Why?
In a statement released by the USTA, longtime Director of Ballpersons, Tina Taps, said, “By rolling between positions, we are putting less emphasis on a single skill-set, in this case throwing, and instead looking at the importance of slotting more well-rounded athletes at the positions.” This is, of course, a well-crafted piece of PR malarkey because throwing and catching is exactly why the US Open ball people have always needed to be well-rounded athletes. To be fair to Ms. Taps, she can be found all over the internet, over decades, extolling the virtues of throwing the ball and correctly pointing out the baseball skill set as key to the US Open’s (now lost) ballperson supremacy. “This is America,” she once said of throwing the ball.
While those who get a regular check from USTA are towing the line, it doesn’t take much to figure out what is going on here. USTA wants more female ball people for their showcase matches at the end of the tournament. It’s about appearances (which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing). Leave aside having the best ball people on court for the biggest matches. That’s another story, for another blog entry.
Plenty of women can wing the ball the length of a tennis court with accuracy. I’ve seen a few who can zip the ball as fast as the young men. While there have been scores of female ball people over the years, the timing of the US Open is such that many of the best ballkids have already returned to college or high school classes during the second week of the tournament. There are fewer needed, but, also fewer available during the quarters, semis and finals. The lower percentage of women and girls in the ballperson corps from day 1 means there are even fewer excellent and deserving ballgirls available for the final rounds. Instead of addressing the actual source of the problem, not carrying enough adult women who are available to work when school is in session, USTA has shown an odd sexism by assuming women are so across-the-board inferior at throwing that a change to how the ball moves around the court is needed, just to attract more girls to tryouts. I can imagine the boardroom conversation:
Executive 1: We need more female ball people on the show courts. Billie Jean King is killing us on inclusion. We need to do something.
Executive 2: I spoke to the people who run the ballpersons. They say they lose too many of their most talented kids during the second week due to school starting. They don’t have enough women who can make the throw from the back. They can only put them at the net posts.
Executive 1: Damn it! The net kids are never in the camera frame when they show the players’ faces on TV. We need girls at the back. Pretty ones, too!
Executive 3: Why do they need to throw the ball? They don’t throw the ball at Wimbledon.
Everyone: Great idea! Let’s stop throwing the ball, torpedo the reason US Open ball people are most efficient and slow down matches, just like Wimbledon!
Okay. I’m sure the last line didn’t happen. But everything up to “Great idea!” almost certainly did.
It’s a surprising decision, since the powers that be are intent on speeding up the game for millennial viewership. They’ve added the serve clock, eliminated sit-down changeovers after the first game of each set and bastardized the scoring (in doubles especially). I’ve already written about eliminating the lets on net cords. If tennis wants to speed the pace of play, eliminate ball people rolling the ball. It’s too slow. New York crowds are about to notice (and say something).
I’m a fan of progress. In a few short years, there will be no more line judges on professional courts. Ball people remain necessary and can play a role in reducing dead time in matches. Though it’s certainly better than rolling, throwing the ball is not the only efficient way to move balls across the court. With more players using ball people as towel stewards, it often makes sense for a ballperson to run a handful of balls from one end of the court to the other when the serve changes ends. We see this a bit at the French Open when a ballperson is too occupied with a player towel to receive rolls. Running the balls already happens at the US Open when ballperson crews are stretched thin with junior events and doubles matches in the second week. When you have one ballperson running balls to the other end between games, the balls get to the other side quickly, without much drama or risk.
Ultimately, the USTA should still seek the most well-rounded athletes in their ballperson tryouts. Just don’t pretend rolling the ball requires anything more than lowering the standards. Instead, keep the standards high, throw the balls and let those who can’t throw accurately display their athleticism by running the balls. Then, do a better job encouraging girls, especially adult women, to join the team.
The new Louis Armstrong Stadium is absolutely incredible. In fact, it’s so beautiful the USTA will eventually have to demolish Arthur Ashe Stadium to build something architecturally worthy of Armstrong next door.
It has been brought to my attention that I didn’t cover the Australian Open ball people. They also roll the ball and wear funny hats. I had a good joke about rolling wombats, but, it didn’t make the final cut.
Jeffrey Menaker / Guest Blogger
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You can see more of Jeff stories on his blog entitled “Play the Let”
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