Lautaro Grinspan, a 17-year-old Florida high school student who has been a ballkid for four years in Miami, shares his experiences from the tournament.
If the world of tennis we all happily inhabit had “rungs,” or “classes,” most wouldn’t think twice before placing ballboys and ballgirls in the lowest, saddest and most despicable of echelons. After dedicating four Marches of my life ballboying at the 2010-2013 editions of the combined Miami tennis event, I’ve realized (the hard way, of course) that such antipathy makes sense.
After all, as ballpersons, we receive more reprimands from players than we do words of gratitude (an angry Tomas Berdych demonstrated to me the “proper” way to hand a player his/her towel back in 2011 and I swear I’ll never forget it), we take frequent sweat showers when handling said towels (or when getting them thrown on our faces a-la-Roddick, of course) and we do nothing but run and scamper around blazing-hot hard courts under Florida’s unforgiving sun. Factor in our demanding schedules (we must get on site hours before play starts and we cannot leave until the last ball of the day has been struck) and you get a recipe for a less-than-ideal spring break.
So why do I, along with hundreds of other crazy kids in Miami and thousands of them throughout the world, keep coming back for more?
Because to tennis fans, especially to those of the hardcore breed, ballboying is nothing short of a dream come true. As an incredibly loud-mouthed staffer of the Sony’s ballperson program adequately put it at the start of this year’s tournament, the Sony, in its ephemeral two week-long existence, becomes to its tennis-obsessed ballkids what Disney World is to the rest of humanity: the happiest place on Earth.
After all, we do have the best seat in the house (even though it’s not a seat at all, as our worn and weary feet at the end of the day can attest). Actually being on court with the game’s top stars, I’ve learned, gives one such a more-developed appreciation and sensory understanding of a tennis match. Things like weight of shot, ball spin, and utter power become more clear, more evident. I’ve watched a lot of tennis on TV over the years, but I’ve never grasped a serve so well as when I’m standing on the receiving side of the court at the Sony, with serves bouncing and seemingly about to come right into me.
Standing beside the players also sheds a lot of light on seemingly contradictory facets of their on-court dispositions. Indeed, in the way they carry themselves on the court and interact with us ballboys, players appear ultra focused to almost trance-like extents and can seem very eery. At the same time, though, we can easily tell how players feel or what their energy and motivational levels are.
The Serena Williams I gave bananas and water bottles to during changeovers in the first sets of her matches against Morita, Cibulkova and Sharapova, for instance, was nothing like the Serena I serviced later on in those matches. At the beginning of those battles (especially the Cibulkova match, of course), it was beyond obvious, given her footwork on the court and her countenance during changeovers, that she wasn’t feeling well and she simply did not want to be there. Players’ intent and sense of purpose become, I guess, extremely palpable when you’re on court with them.
Since the ballperson program at the Sony is the largest in the world, there is intense competition among ballkids to sway program directors into assigning them Stadium Court for the day. As a pretty talented (and extraordinarily lucky) four-year veteran at the Sony, I got to work Stadium each of my seven shifts this year. And working Stadium is, of course, an experience in itself. Why? Because of the people.
Not only are 14,000 spectators assembled there, Stadium court is also the home to line-judges (the majority of which are very nice to ballkids and tell the coolest stories of working the finals at tournaments like Wimbledon or the US Open), photographers (who will scream at you if you get in their shots’ way), tournament staff, cameramen, coaches and more.
You often hear players talk about the energy they feel on some of the tour’s biggest arenas, and as a ballboy strutting in line, coming out of a tunnel into the explosion of color and sounds that is Stadium, I immediately get it. There is absolutely nothing more electrifying than being on court, at the center of everyone’s attention, when a player hits a formidable shot, he fist pumps and yells “Come on!” and a packed, energetic crowd erupts into loud cheer.
This year, the response to Maria Sharapova’s magical lob in the second set of her match against Serena really did feel like a huge wave of excitement descending unto us all. Also noteworthy and curious is just how well one can hear members of the audience, their words of encouragement or simple conversation, when on the court. It really does speak to the players’ ability to block everything out when playing.
Also, lest I forget to mention it, ballboying is just plain awesome, especially to the proud bunch of us tennis fanatics.
It’s all about our love for the sport, really.
It’s about waiting for a restroom to be unoccupied within stadium’s “secret” hallways and having, to your amazement and surprise, Rafael Nadal (eventually) walk out of it.
It’s about Serena Williams (who is actually extremely nice to ballkids on court, always saying please and thank you to us) texting while she walks past you as she makes her way to the media room.
It’s about Vika Azarenka yelling at you at the top of her lungs to toss her balls only from a specific side.
It’s about ballboying for every member of the women’s and men’s top 10 (except Roger Federer, who, as it turns out, is actually your favorite player and broke your heart when he decided to skip Miami in 2013).
It’s about becoming practically best friends with Agnieszka Radwanska, as you chat when handing her a Sharpie and the couple of balls she is about to triumphantly knock into the audience after a victory.
It’s about posing in pictures with and signing autographs for (allegedly, rather naive) fans, because they recognize that you’re somehow part of it all.
It’s about enduring Andrew Krasny’s teases and jokes after a match is completed and being able to exchange words with people like Stacey Allaster, Kader Nouni, Eva Asderaki, Lars Graff and many, many more.
It’s about getting to sing happy birthday to Sloane Stephens as she turns 20.
It’s about having family in Argentina call you to tell they’ve seen you on TV.
And it’s about falling more in love with Sharapova as she leaves in the ballperson tent, as a treat to us (or as part of a clever marketing strategy) a surprise dispatch of Sugarpova bags prior to the final (in case you’re wondering, by the way, “Smitten” is the way to go).
Unfortunately, this was my last year ballboying at the Sony (because of this little thing called college …) but, as you can tell, I’m departing with a good amount of unforgettable memories.
So, next time you pity ballpersons, the supposed dregs of the tennis world, take a second to consider how good we have it. After all, players’ towels may defy laws of physics in the amount of sweat they’re able to contain (I’m looking at you, John Isner), but we actually have arguments (and, ultimately, rock-paper-scissors duels) to settle who within our teams is to handle them. They provide more (in my case, horribly awkward) TV coverage.