Ball girls, ball boys, ball men and ball women at the U.S. Open will have a much different job, starting with this summer’s tournament. They now must roll balls on the ground rather than exchange them in the air around the court because, in simplest terms, too many just cannot throw the ball overhand well enough.
Throwing — not even catching — is the toughest part of the job to master, tournament officials said, the one skill that has eliminated the most candidates who were otherwise qualified.
“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,” Tina Taps, director of the tournament’s ball people, said in a news release. “In making this change, we are able to focus more on speed, dexterity and agility, important attributes for a ball person, along with overall court awareness.”
The origins of the U.S. Open date to 1881. It is unclear how long ball persons have been throwing overhand. It has been many decades, at least, a small and quirky part of a tournament that has always liked to stand out from the other majors.
Taps has been the director of ball persons for 30 years. Taps said Thursday in a phone interview that the change was made not because people generally cannot throw like they used to; it is not an indictment on weak-armed youth of the latest generations.
The change was made, she said, to open opportunities for people who cannot throw the length of the court, a prerequisite for working beyond the baseline, where most ball persons are stationed.
During a typical match, two ball persons are positioned in a crouch at the net, where they spring into action after points to retrieve a wayward ball. Four others, two on each end, are called “backs.” They supply towels and balls for serves. Between points and games, before this year, they threw balls the length of the court to get them to the proper end.
Not everyone can perform those throws with precision. Taps believes that the change to rolling will allow ball persons restricted to the net because of a weak arm to now work the backs, giving the tournament more flexibility in scheduling. And it will induce more people to apply in the first place.
Ball persons at the U.S. Open, which typically extends into the school year in September, must be at least 14 years old. It is the only one of the four majors to invite adults over the age of 18 to take part. That distinction was highlighted in a 1993 Seinfeld episode in which the character Kramer tries out for the squad.
“I may be old,” Kramer told a skeptical young man at tryouts. “But I’m spry.”
Ball persons still skew young and male. About one-quarter of them are female, Taps said. In 2009, when The New York Times wrote about a 61-year-old ball person named Jerry Loughran, he was the only ball person over 50. The median age that year was 18.
The change to rolling may attract a more diverse group, in gender and age.
“We do hope it attracts more, but I don’t know that it will,” Taps said. “Maybe there’s that girl out there saying, ‘I tried last year and I couldn’t do as well,’ and this year they’re thinking, ‘Wow, now I have a little bit better chance. Now I don’t have to put that throw into it. Let me go back and try again.’”
The U.S. Open will hold its annual tryouts for ball persons on Tuesday. More than 100 of the roughly 275 positions are open, the tournament said. The rest will be filled by returning ball persons.
The U.S. Open was the only one of the majors at which ball persons regularly throw the ball between them, as balls are rotated around the court between points and service games. At Wimbledon, the French Open and the Australian Open, balls are generally rolled, as smoothly across the surface as possible. The ball boys and girls whip balls with a knee-bending, underarm motion, like bowlers or players of Skee-Ball.
By contrast, the U.S. Open is — or was — an aerial show between points. Ball persons chucked balls to one another to get the balls to the service end. The best hit their targets on one bounce. What the choreography lacked in elegance it made up for in entertainment.
“That was part of the U.S. Open’s identity,” said Gill Gross, 19, a former U.S. Open ball person. He added: “If Wimbledon took away strawberries and cream, would the tournament fall apart? No, but it would lose one of its defining character traits.”
Gross admitted that throwing the balls was trickier than it looked.
“It’s a pretty difficult throw to be on the money every time, so there’s certainly a pride factor when watching ball people roll the ball at other tournaments,” he said. “There was a sense that we kind of had a special skill that they didn’t necessarily have.”
Other physical skills are required to be a ball person, but it is throwing that has proved most vexing.
“In the past, potential applicants may have decided not to try out because of the daunting nature of the throw,” Stacey Allaster, the chief executive of professional tennis for the U.S. Tennis Association, said in the release. “We hope that those same individuals will now come out for the tryout this year, as well as those that may have not made the cut in the past, solely due to their throwing prowess.”
Of course, it is not certain that rolling is any easier or comes more naturally.
“You can learn to roll and practice and practice and practice and get better at it,” Taps said. “If your arm is not strong and you can’t throw the length of the court, that’s something you can’t change.”