The man with the soul patch and the glasses stands in the backcourt, holding up the tennis ball as an inquisitive gesture of whether or not I'm ready. I nod—I am ready, I think.
He drops the ball onto the swinging racket, and the fuzzy green orb launches toward the net. Showtime.
I lean into the serve and I'm three steps onto the court by the time the ball reaches the net. But instead of hitting the net—as is the point of the drill—the ball sails over, missing the top by two inches. Which means I'm three steps onto the court, during a live match between Federer and Nadal, and the whole world is watching. Did I mention I've just wet myself?
Thankfully, it's only a drill. I'm the first member of the press to endure the mock ballperson tryouts for the 2016 U.S. Open in Queens, NY. There will be about 400 actual ballperson hopefuls later in the day, and with multiple rounds of cuts, minor mistakes are tolerable at this stage. But Cathy Delaney, assistant director of ballpersons at the Open, isn't about to let it go.
"Don't run out like that, Federer will be like 'what the hell man!'" she says. "Actually, Serena really wouldn't like that."
The Huffington Post, Elle, ABC 7, CBS, New York 1, the New York Daily News, the Queens Times and ESPN are all here to test their ball-shagging mettle against one another for this press-only event. Most show up with multiple camera operators, sound guys with Swiffer duster-looking boom mics, and iPhone 6s on handheld stabilizers. And yet they pulled the intern with the moleskin notebook from the crowd to go first.
Fine, whatever. I ran track in college, and my competition is a menagerie of bloated sportswriters, millennial bloggers (taking selfies) and older women. I got this.
I run the net drill again, which means standing at attention like a palace guard until the ball hits the net, and then sprinting out onto the court, snatching up the ball with both hands, and returning to the side of the court before throwing it back to the player with precisely one bounce. Or, if the player doesn't want the ball back, throwing it away. Or, if the player doesn't want the ball back but you give it to them anyway, getting beaned in the face. Either/or.
Four runs later and I've nailed it, so Cathy sends me to the backcourt drill, the other ballperson position. Whereas the net drill favors shorter people who can get to the ground faster, the backcourt drill favors taller people who can grab errant balls before they bounce into the stands. I'm 6'2," so better to be a giraffe than an anteater, I figure. But the net drill can also be tricky, as the below video explains so succinctly.
For the backcourt drill, I'm paired with an older woman from CBS. We stand at opposite ends of the court (behind the baseline), and lob three balls to each other in rapid succession, spanning the 100-foot distance and making sure to loft each ball at least 10 feet above the net to clear the judging chair wire (and making sure damn sure to do it in precisely one bounce).
Unfortunately, I'm an oaf who doesn't watch or play tennis, so I've no idea where to stand. I wander to the rear of the court before Cathy realizes I have no fucking clue.
"No, go back!" she says, marshalling me about the court. "No, forward! Have you ever watched tennis before?!"
"I've played Mario Tennis...," I say.
I figure it best to just jump in, so I start lobbing balls as far as I can. Which, if you know me, isn't very far. Despite my best efforts to not throw out my shoulder, I thought it better to need Tommy John's surgery in 10 years than embarrass myself in front of actual members of the press. Thankfully, my maximum striking distance happened to be exactly one bounce away from the CBS woman, whose return lobs required three bounces to get to my toes. I felt bad, so I ran up to each one, but if we were on the gridiron she'd still be flagged for intentional grounding.
Drill finished, I shag the rest of the balls and jog up to Cathy, who in turn tells me to sprint. I don't see why the 60-year-old across the court gets to walk, but I was too flustered to consider the ethics of ageism.
"Whoops, you weren't supposed to see that," Cathy says as she realizes I'm dissecting my scorecard as we talk about the drill—then I asked her if I would have made the cut. "Don't call us, we'll call you."
Job done, I wander back to the stands to jot notes and hope that the rest of the press cocks it up worse than me. Just then, the brunette from Elle in the Polo Ralph Lauren ballperson uniform (to be fair, I wore one too, because I hoped I could take it home if I left early—I couldn't) pulls me aside.
"OK, so: Do you have any tips for me?" she asks, motioning her two cameramen to start filming our conversation. I thought about not telling her to improve my chances, but I'm still cocky enough about my physicality that I figured a self-imposed learners handicap is only fair.
"Umm, yeah," I say. "Stand up straight—like a palace guard or something—don't run out until the ball hits, scoop with two hands, throw back with one bounce, and try not to fall."
"OMG thank you!" she says, like I'd just told her where D.B. Cooper's fortune is buried.
The front four rows of seats form the Press Peanut Gallery, where we all watch each other cock it up in succession and jeer the greatest unforced errors. Elle Brunette is next: She listens to my advice and executes perfectly on her fourth try, punctuating her success with an ear-assaulting squeal.
"Your enthusiasm is great," Cathy says. "But maybe tone it down a little."
She nods and carries on, before retreating to the opposite set of stands to film her wrap-up. The ESPN guys sit by themselves, complaining about sports stuff that they obviously adore but feel like they should play off anyway.
"I gotta be at the NBA draft at 2:30," one says. "The WORST NBA draft EVER."
The young blonde from the Huffington Post is up next, and she tilts her head to the right and winces at her iPhone for a quick pre-drill Snapchat selfie. Hustle is her problem.
"Sprint! Sprint! Sprint!" Cathy jeers. "Was that your sprint?!" She grins sheepishly—evidently it was her sprint.
She moves onto the backcourt drill, and like me, she's struggling with the standing bit. Cathy is on her last nerve, and she's picking up on it.
"Cathy is really mad at me, you guys!" she says into the stabilized iPhone filming her strife.
A doughy man from the New York Daily News is next, and he trips over himself a bit but blitzes the course faster than the girls. I catch up with him on the side of the court after his turn.
"When they make you hold your hands behind your back [during the net drill], I feel like I'm crip-walking out there," he says.
Nobody fares as badly as the ABC 7 reporter. I hope the middle-30s woman got enough B-roll, because she cut her segment short midway through the net drill. She stood at the net while her cameraman stood abreast of the man serving the balls to the net, and when it was time to return the ball to the server, she made a truly horrible toss that hit the cameraman. On the camera. In the lens. Smash.
The Press Peanut Gallery erupted with laughter at the sound of breaking glass.
"And that's a wrap!" someone jeered.
A 40s ESPN reporter ran the final drill with great speed and agility, and with that, the session concluded. I cornered Cathy to figure out if I'd have the job. Eventually, I pried my scorecard out of her hands, and saw my mediocrity firsthand.
Foot work: 50/50
Final assessment: Call if needed.
Adequately humbled, I walked back to the stands to write all this down. Just as I began to scribble, a massive CLANG rang out just above my head.
They'd said they were knocking down this stadium next year, but I'll be damned if I didn't think they decided to start early. The whole crowd looked up to see the source of the sound, and it was about a foot above my head: A 6-foot-tall steel-sided poster of Serena Williams had blown over in the wind, and fallen directly onto the guardrail above me. Had I been Dikembe Mutombo, I would have been thoroughly concussed.
It was a shot across the bow for flinching on her drill. Better get back to the office and write all this up before Serena finishes me off.