Ballboys of the World Unite!

As we gear up for the U.S. Open, I’m reminded of a remarkable thing I witnessed at the men’s championship at Wimbledon in July. At the end of the match, while Pete Sampras climbed over thin-lipped Brits to hug his choked-up father with the Greek unibrow, Princess Anne (the one who, after the whole Novotna fiasco, assured us that there is a warm heart in the monarchy) said something absolutely astonishing. The microphone didn’t pick it up, but the camera did.

“You were wonderful,” she said-to a ballboy.

To most, including the players, the ballboy is as much a part of the scenery as the potted plant in the court’s corner or the speedometer stuck to the backstop. But others, like myself, follow the point past the whiffing racquet and pay closer attention to whether the ballboy is sure-handed enough to stab the ace out of the air or whether he or she bobbles it in the palms and bounces it off the chin, delaying the match. If he or she does, it is a humiliation I can understand.

I, too, was a ballboy in the big show. During the U.S. Opens of 1991 through 1995, I donned my blue Fila short shorts and endured sunburned cheeks to feed tennis balls to the serving giants dressed in white. Like the young men and women of Wimbledon, I stood in the back holding balls high above my head as if I had won them in a carnival, in anticipation of Sampras’ eye contact, Michael Chang’s nod, Stefan Edberg’s “If you’d be so kind.”

Princess Anne never thanked us for our minimum-wage-earning labor. I don’t think anyone ever did. I seek kudos for all of us veteran ball collectors, wherever we may be. And those of the U.S. Open deserve it most.

Recruited largely from the tennis bubbles and baseball diamonds of Queens, we ballboys in the back (simply “backs” in Open parlance) rifled the ball across the court, allowing only one skipping bounce. Unlike the Brits with the stony and pallid faces, we had color and accents other than “luff-ley.” We had personality.

Sometimes a bit too much of the latter.

As in any other business, ballboying requires a great deal of political skill, diplomacy and effort for vertical mobility. Basically, you had to kiss some major ballboy-supervisor butt to have your name moved up toward Center Court on the magnetic board. And that was no easy task, for these were some unattractive derrieres. The supervisors were a collection of Billie Jean King types who maintained the haircut of your cool uncle back in the 1950’s. They each, of course, will remain nameless (Kathy), but they held a sparkle in their eye for hiked-up Fila skirts on the ballgirls and reserved a lashing tongue for those they deemed wise guys.

Despite our talents (enormous, I will tell the grandchildren bouncing on my knee), these women had it in for me and the “bad attitude” crew. Because, contrary to popular belief, ballboys don’t sit quietly and clap softly in their perches when they’re off-duty. (Some do, but they are still ballboys and they’re older than me.) We hung around with sloppy postures, smoking Newports and nipping at flasks like sailors. We’d play Chinese poker and talk about how we’d love, just adore, doing certain ballgirls with their skirts still on. We signed tennis balls scarred by any old player’s grid of racquet string with Agassi’s signature, and sold them to tourists. We’d sell our T-shirts (we each had two and they granted free admission) to tennis junkies for upwards of $300. The crew I rolled with included two of the top 10 players on the East Coast and some baseball players, but we were all Queens kids. We compiled the food tickets issued to us every morning, five dollars’ worth of cardboard stamps each (which alone could get you maybe half a baked potato at the food court), threw in some “Agassi” balls and bartered for $8 bottles of Evian at wholesale prices. The complicit water vendors helped us load our damp Jansport bags, and we were off whispering “five dollas five dollas” wherever we heard the smacking of a dry mouth. We sucked up more green off the court than on. Needless to say, our supervisors had no idea.

What they did know were the goings-on about court. For me, there were three disasters. In my rookie year, my mother demanded that I spread suntan lotion on my face before work. Being a dutiful son with an Irish complexion, I obeyed. At the end of the third game of a match, I reapplied the oily stuff. In the fourth, the player bounced the balls I fed him twice, as was his routine, and then held them under his nose for inspection, which was irregular. “Suntan lotion? Who the hell is wearing suntan lotion?” Play stopped, and I washed the crap off my hands in the ice and Powerade. Sure enough, all that year I was called “Suntan Man.” The name stuck almost as long as Sampras was called “Sampras-Ass” for the inordinate amount of sweat that accumulated on his backside.

The supervisors found out about me and weren’t pleased.

I managed to work my way up the ranks (through politics, diplomacy, effort) so that, by my second year, I was working Center Court matches. The coolest player was Andrei Medvedev, with whom we admired a blond woman in a revealing sundress. The worst was the Italian qualifier who threatened my life for catching a fly ball, even though it was 10 feet out of bounds. We were in the boonies, Court 25 or something, and I threatened him back. The supervisors were not pleased.

It was after that incident that a true veteran, a ballboy who smoked joints at lunch and used the backstop as a reclining chair during boring matches, taught me the all-powerful knuckleball feed. The toss looks normal to everyone but the player, and it disrupts his focus enough to throw off his game.

Like crossing the laser streams in Ghostbusters , it’s to be done only in emergencies and not with class-A players or classy people, only the real jerks.

Jonathan Stark, who was a so-so player but the worst of assholes, a real tormentor of ballboys, qualified as such an emergency. By a stroke of luck, I was assigned to all three of Stark’s matches during the 1995 Open (singles, doubles and mixed doubles with Martina Navratilova-Kathy’s favorite). I knuckleballed him out of the tournament, but not before he asked a referee to have me removed from the court. The true power of the knuckleball manifested itself as the referee told him that he was delusional and arrogant, and then deducted a point. I became a ballboy hero.

There was, however, no hero’s welcome for any of us. Never a “job well done” by anyone but a line judge or a mannish supervisor. We may not be the giants of tennis, no Pete Samprases or Patrick Rafters, but without us the top players would all be institutionalized for serving and returning imaginary objects. So thank you, Princess Anne. May others follow your example. Ballboys of the World Unite!