At your service: Becoming a tennis ball person

·4 min read

In the weeks leading up to the U.S. open, as preparations began in New York for America's marquee tennis event, correspondent Mo Rocca went to see the athletes at practice – running, rallying, rolling. These are tennis' unsung heroes: The ball persons.

For 22 years, Laray Fowler has been using time off from her day job to serve as a ball person. Rocca asked her, "Which do you prefer, the net or the baseline?"

"I prefer any position on the court, as long as I'm on the court," she replied.

And how does she train? "You just need to make sure that your body is in the best shape that your body can be in," Fowler said. "Cardio, yoga … your reflexes need to be on-point."

Laray Fowler shows her speed and agility as a tennis ball person.  / Credit: CBS News
Laray Fowler shows her speed and agility as a tennis ball person. / Credit: CBS News

Fowler is one of about 200 ball people working the Open, aged 16 to 63, whose chief aim is not to be noticed.

Fowler said, "Part of our job is to make the match go smoother and just not be seen, and if we can make the match go as fast as possible and effortless, that's great."

Tennis was originally a game for aristocrats, said historian Elizabeth Wilson, author of "Love Game." "Henry VIII of England played tennis. Louis XIV, Louis X of France, they all were mad about tennis," Wilson said.

"I would be so stressed out being Henry VIII's ball boy," Rocca laughed.

"Well, I don't know that Louis XIV would've been much better, actually," Wilson said.

During this early period, hiring ball persons was unnecessary. "Ball persons emerged simply out of servants," said Wilson. "This was no problem getting someone to hand you the ball."

In the 1960s, tennis entered the "open era," which meant amateurs and professionals started playing together. And as the sport became more professionalized, so did the role of the ball person. In newsreel footage from 1966, ball boys at Wimbledon (and back then there were no ball girls) are seen being put through their paces.

English ball boys are drilled. / Credit: Pathe news
English ball boys are drilled. / Credit: Pathe news

Wilson said, "That period really inaugurates when people really had to look at how are tournaments run, who is umpiring. This was all part of something that then included ball boys."

Before they became tennis royalty, John McEnroe was a ball person, as was a 12-year-old Roger Federer.

This year's open call for U.S. Open ball persons was held in June – and Rocca just had to audition.

The mechanics of the job were quickly explained: "Run out there fast as you can, clean pick it up, run back to your position here," said the instructor.

Mo Rocca and other aspiring ball persons get a demonstration of the ideal stance.  / Credit: CBS News
Mo Rocca and other aspiring ball persons get a demonstration of the ideal stance. / Credit: CBS News

It takes six ball persons to work a match: two behind each of the baselines and two at the net. Should a point end at the net, the corresponding ball person springs into action, quick like a bunny, careful not to stomp or squeak. Then, he or she rolls the ball toward the baseline ball person, who services the player, all within 25 seconds.

When the balls aren't in play, they have to be handled carefully.

Tiahnne Noble, the U.S. Open's director of ball persons, said, "The ball people actually can't put balls into their pockets. So, we just put them behind our back."

A ball boy holds balls for players during the 2021 U.S. Open tennis tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York, August 31, 2021. / Credit: ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images
A ball boy holds balls for players during the 2021 U.S. Open tennis tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York, August 31, 2021. / Credit: ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

Rocca asked, "Does it help if you have long fingers to hold a lot of balls?"

"No," said Noble. "Typically the most you'll have at one time is four, maybe five."

"Well, that's a lot! Can you hold three balls in one hand?"

"Yes!"

And these balls are flying fast. "Some ball persons can get hit if they don't get out of the way of the tennis ball," Noble said. "Last year I had some fractured fingers from trying to catch some serves."

At last year's Australian Open, Rafael Nadal accidentally hit ball person Anita Birchall in the head. But there's no crying in Grand Slam tennis!

Rocca asked Noble, "What do you look for in a ball person?"

"I want the ball people to be attentive, and have a great attitude," she replied.

Alas, this year Rocca's best wasn't good enough. Having been put through the paces, he panted, "I'm ready to be put into assisted living after that."

Tennis, the sport of kings (and Mo Rocca).  / Credit: CBS News
Tennis, the sport of kings (and Mo Rocca). / Credit: CBS News

For more info:

U.S. OpenU.S. Open Ball Person Tryouts"Love Game: A History of Tennis, from Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon" by Elizabeth Wilson (‎Serpent's Tail), in Trade Paperback and eBook formats, available via Amazon

Story produced by Julie Kracov. Editor: Chad Cardin.

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