USTA aims to expand its US Open ballperson pool

The USTA has announced it is making a major change in how its ballkids (well, ballpersons, because some of them probably wear reading glasses) operate, beginning with this year’s US Open.

Instead of throwing the ball between positions, they will now “roll the ball from point-to-point,” the USTA said in a press release.

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“Rolling between positions has traditionally been utilized at the other Grand Slam events,” it added.

The director of US Open Ballpersons, Tina Tap, says it’s about de-emphasizing the ability to throw a ball.

“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,” she said.  “In making this change, we are able to focus more on speed, dexterity and agility, important attributes for a ballperson, along with overall court awareness.”

Stacey Allaster, the USTA’s Chief Executive, Professional tennis, says throwing the tennis ball can be “daunting”.

“The goal of making the change to the rolling technique, is to create a larger pool of athletes and applicants trying out for the ballperson position,” Allaster said. “In the past, potential applicants may have decided not to try out because of the daunting nature of the throw.  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.”

The tryouts are next Tuesday afternoon at the USTA National Center. They’re looking for 100 ballpersons for the tournament, including returnees.

One big difference between the US Open and many of the tournaments around the planet is that there’s a minimum age limit of 14 for ball persons, and no maximum age limit.

Allaster told tennis.life in an interview Thursday that the laws in New York state prohibit anyone younger than 14. So there’s not much they can do about that.

Different strokes for different Slams

Here’s a group of ballkids going through a rigorous warmup at the French Open a couple of weeks ago.

And here are some US Open ballpersons warming up their throwing arms on court during last year’s tournament.

Eliminating a handy skill

Allaster said the change was not meant to imply that girls can’t throw a tennis ball. We all know many girls who do, and also many boys who don’t.

This fabulous young lady a few years back had no trouble keeping up with her ballperson duties.

She said it was a move to try to make the pool of applicants more diverse, to include candidates who may not know much about tennis and try to bring them into the sport.

“We’re trying to not only use the US Open ballperson as a retention tool for those who play the sport already, but use this very valuable tool to inspire more athletes to come to our sport,” she said. “So we’re not targeting any specific group, and would be absolutely thrilled if we had more boys and girls come out to the tryouts.”

Allaster said they’ve even removed criteria such as “a passion for the sport” and “a knowledge of the game” from the advertising materials.

“Male, female, boy and girl. To try to remove some of those barriers and cast a wider net – those who currently play, and those who never played but think it would be kind of cool to go and get close to some of the best athletes in the world,” she said.

Most unique ball crew in tennis

The ballpersons’ crew at Flushing Meadow has always been a fairly diverse group anyway.

Some of the men are, well, they’re old enough to have kids that are eligible for the crew. (We’d love to see women of similar age, but there never seem to be any). 

Last year, Taps said that she would welcome even more of the senior generation, because of their leadership qualities

Throwing a ball great for the serve

There’s a downside to removing this particular skill from the ball person skill set. Because it’s a valuable skill to have if you aspire to be a good tennis player.

Since the pronation on the serve isn’t that all that far removed from the throwing motion, it can only be a plus for aspiring young players who want to have the ball person experience.

And throwing a ball – any ball – is a great thing for budding athletes to work on mastering, since the skill applies across so many different sports.

Here are a couple of Canadian players, Charlotte Robillard-Millette and Marie-Alexandre Leduc, working on that pronation by throwing a football on a court at the Rogers Cup a few years ago.

It may have worked too well.

The change may mean the Rogers Cup in Canada will be the only tournament remaining where the ballpeople still throw the ball down the court.

It’s a point of pride with the kids, actually. They like being known as one of the few tournaments where that skill is valued.

And now, they may be able to brag that they’re unique.

Teaching the ballpersons the game

If widening the recruiting net ends up meaning there are more tennis neophytes this year, Allaster said they’re prepared to teach them what they need to know.

“We have an amazing team that works with the ball persons through the selection process. We anticipate over 500 people will be at the auditions on Tuesday, and we’ll narrow that down. And we probably already have 150 who have been invited to return,” she said. “We’re looking at those skills that are important: speed, agility,  dexterity. We truly believe that we can teach those that have those fundamentals, the rules.”

Allaster said the rookies obviously might not get on Arthur Ashe Stadium in primetime in their first year. But she said the USTA has hired someone from Tennis Australia who has worked with their ballkids Down Under to help with the process.

They also will have an officiating team at the auditions, looking for the next generation of officials.

“It’s a real opportunity for us at the USTA. We’ve got to grow the game, and bring more people to the sport. And this is just one of those marketing tools that we have,” Allaster said.

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