Net Flicks at U.S. Open
One night next week or perhaps the week after, the final minutes of Andre Agassi’s playing career will be ticking down in Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows. At one of those moments, Mr. Agassi—who announced before Wimbledon that this year’s U.S. Open would be his last tennis tournament—will look to Gary Spitz and motion for a ball.
Mr. Spitz is the dean of the U.S. Open’s 270 or so ball boys and ball girls, although at the age of 42, with graying temples and eyeglasses, it’s a bit awkward to call him a ball boy to his face. This will be Mr. Spitz’s 26th Open; Mr. Agassi is calling it quits after just 21.
When he started as a teenager in 1980, Mr. Spitz worked one of Björn Borg’s matches at Forest Hills. Very soon he’ll have the honor of looking Mr. Agassi in the eye the moment he leaves the game for good. Kristin Ogdon will be watching, too, from her coiled crouch at the net. While Mr. Spitz’s job is to stand at the back of the court tossing balls back and forth, hers is to retrieve errant serves and unfortunate backhands. (There are some people who can switch between the net and backcourt, but never in the same match, and most ball persons tend to specialize.) Ms. Ogdon has worked the last dozen Opens. You probably saw the blond and bubbly 28-year-old streak across your TV screen during last year’s rousing Agassi–James Blake match, or in any of the Williams sisters’ prime-time slugfests.
She and Mr. Spitz are a few of the two dozen of what Ms. Ogdon calls “super-veterans” at the top of the ball-boy and ball-girl ranks. While they may have begun their tenures at the Open as students working summer jobs, today they scrimp and save vacation days all year in order to blow them all at once spending two weeks chasing balls, dodging rackets tossed by hot-tempered losers, and even cleaning up Pete Sampras’ vomit—all for the Ralph Lauren–issued uniforms, some free shoes and 10 bucks an hour.
I asked Mr. Spitz if he was the one who got stuck tending to the queasy Mr. Sampras. “That was Ron Butts,” he said a little wistfully. “He’s still a ball boy, too.”
When he isn’t handing fresh towels to the latest tightly strung Russian phenom, Mr. Spitz is a lawyer. Recently, he opened his own firm. His equally jammed colleagues on the tennis court work for consulting firms and corporate-identity firms, among other occupations. One of the more precocious among them just started his own public-relations and marketing firm a year out of Harvard; he intends to commute to his office in Queens between matches, pecking away at his BlackBerry on the No. 7 train there and back.
“For those two weeks, you eat, sleep and breathe tennis while trying to work on the side,” said Ms. Ogdon, who in real life works in corporate marketing at Time Inc. “We love it.”
Back in June, the United States Tennis Association was holding the annual tryouts. Unlike the bat boys at Yankee Stadiums or the caddies at golf’s U.S. Open, those chosen to assist Venus Williams or Roger Federer are the product of a publicly open process, graded on strict, transparent criteria. Attrition claims 75 or so each year; anyone can audition to take their place. Upward of 400 boys and girls—minimum age, 14—appear annually intending to do just that.
I decided to give it a whirl. On a hot afternoon, we were packed into the bleachers on one of the outer courts. Mr. Spitz and other veterans would judge us on the accuracy of our tosses and the nimbleness of our retrievals. Overseeing the tryouts was Tina Taps, manager of tennis programs at the USTA National Tennis Center and the U.S. Open Director of Ballpersons.
“My body’s not getting any younger,” said Sam Teichman, a 26-year-old aspiring sportswriter and Shea Stadium vendor who figured that with “a good’s night sleep and a live arm from firing bags of peanuts, I can keep up with the youngsters. Any sports fan would kill for this chance if they had the physical ability. I just figured I’d roll the dice.”
But tossing balls in deceptively soft parabolas the length of the court proved to be more than his arm could muster. “That was embarrassing,” he muttered after he trooped off the court. His throws had withered and drifted off-target in the wind. “I’m used to bags of peanuts and a hardball,” he said.
When my turn came at net, a ball boy named Danny Caesa warned me to “grab the ball with both hands; don’t get cute.” As he hit balls into the net, I streaked across the court, scooping them up with soft, sure hands. Then it was time to toss. My best attempts to rifle the ball the length of the court fell drastically short of the baseline. “As a net guy, I’d take you,” Mr. Caesa said afterwards. “But as a back … eh.”
The oldest would-be rookie was a 57-year-old labor lawyer named Jerry Loughran, who had retrieved balls here last year for a wheelchair tourney and worked a men’s tennis event in Forest Hills. “I hope my shoulder holds up,” he said before taking the court where Mr. Spitz stood, clipboard in hand. He understandably had no interest in the net, but his throws carried and were true.
“We just get caught up in it,” he said later. “You don’t want to mess up mentally or physically, and it’s only after the Open that you catch a glimpse of yourself and realize how privileged we are to have this. It’s a Grand Slam, and it’s in my backyard. When I walk by all the scalpers selling tickets, asking me if I want 10th row or fifth row, I’d love to ask them, ‘Can you put me on court?’”
Insights on Name Collecting
I spoke to “name collector” Pete Duvoe at his home in Brooklyn.
SPARROW: You are a name collector?
MR. DUVOE: Yes. For the last 17 years.
SPARROW: How did you become one?
MR. DUVOE: I was always drawn to singular names but never kept a list. Seventeen years ago, I was given a blank book—a journal—as a birthday present, and I began.
SPARROW: Do you have a special term for this journal?
MR. DUVOE: I call it my “Nomenclature Book.”
SPARROW: What was the first name you wrote down?
MR. DUVOE: Luckily Scorpio.
SPARROW: That’s a real name?
MR. DUVOE: All my names are true.
SPARROW: How many names do you have now?
MR. DUVOE: Six thousand and four as of today. I just added Itir Kardestunker.
SPARROW: What makes you choose a name?
MR. DUVOE: Originally, I was drawn to the unusual. More and more, euphony is my guide.
SPARROW: Are there other name collectors?
MR. DUVOE: Certainly. We have yearly meetings—called “name summits”—usually in towns or cities with striking names. Last year we met in Recluse, Wyo.
SPARROW: What do you do at the meetings?
MR. DUVOE: The highlight is a name reading.
SPARROW: What’s that?
MR. DUVOE: It’s like a poetry reading, only we read names.
SPARROW: Do name collections have any value?
MR. DUVOE: Novelists are interested, because they must invent characters. I’ve met Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag at our name summits. Alice Munro used one of my names, in Runaway.
SPARROW: Do you have a favorite name?
MR. DUVOE: My favorite changes. Lately it’s Willow Wonder.