Tennis watched on TV has nothing on tennis watched from the stands. Tennis watched from the stands, in turn, has nothing on tennis watched while standing right on the court. That’s one perk of being a ball person, one of the many workers crucial to the smooth function of a tennis tournament. They enjoy a rare vantage point on gameplay, and unusually personal access to the world’s best players (and, at times, their bodily discharges). We spoke to a U.S. Open ball person who wished to remain anonymous. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Deadspin: You’ve seen some different eras come and go. Are there any players that stand out to you?
Ball Person: Definitely Roger [Federer]. I still, like—every time I’ve done his matches, it felt like he was doing something new on court.
DS: Do you feel from your perspective, you could pick up on things like certain tells or different habits the players have that maybe someone watching on TV wouldn’t have?
BP: I think it’s more during changeovers, because on TV you don’t really see that. You know, kinda see how calm or how worked up they can get depending on how things are going. Roger’s just really calm and if he’s agitated then you know there’s something bothering him. Trying to think about other players—they don’t generally stand out too much. A lot of them are just in their own moments all those 90 seconds, two minutes. And we’re still trying to do our job and concentrate during those too, because they have their needs and they ask us for stuff all of the time.
DS: Have you noticed any unusual habits that they have in between points?
BP: I think the big one is the Rafa one. I think everyone’s seen that one. Even though you know a lot of us work these matches, have the experience with these top players, he always—maybe it’s just because of how he is—he always goes to the ad court [left side] and then the deuce court [right side]. For his balls, like during warmup or something. So he’ll always say two. Even though I’m always showing him the two, just because I know that’s what he wants. Other players, I give all three or all four, depending on how many I have out of the six balls. But he always says two, and then he always goes to the partner in the back for one. So he’s always got a routine for every point, how he handles the balls, handles the towels during the water breaks, how he puts the water bottles in the same spots—that’s the classic one. But he’s the one guy that’s got a whole routine going with every point before every game before warmups. It’s very noticeable.
DS: Is there anyone else like that?
BP: I guess I’m focusing on Roger and Rafa a lot, because you know, Roger knows where everything is on the court at all times. It’s something that, if you watch a lot of matches, you pick up on, but if he sees a ball person in the back who’s short one ball, and he’s on the receiving side, he will just hit that ball directly to that ball person. He’s done it before. He used to be a ball boy in Basel, in Switzerland. But yeah, it’s just little things like that. These guys definitely know everything that’s happening on court.
DS: Do you think that’s a level of awareness that is rare even among these top players?
BP: I think for the most part they they know. They know. I guess it’s a comfort thing for them.
DS: Have you seen any of the opposite: someone who seemed kind of oblivious to what was going on around them, that was just so in their head?
BP: Let me think—no, it’s never been that. I mean, no one comes to mind in terms of just being oblivious to what’s going on. They might freak out about things—[Nick] Kyrgios is one guy. Fabio Fognini is another guy, I guess. It seems like sometimes they let their appearances—it makes them seem like they wander on court mentally, but once the point starts, they do focus. Yeah. It’s just really weird.
DS: When you are working a match involving one of those guys, is it something that you guys dread, or is it something you look forward to, or what’s your perspective there?
BP: I guess you never know what you’re going to get with them. I think maybe some of the younger ball people, they might feel a little differently. I think I’ve seen enough to be “whatever” about it. It’s not that I don’t care, but I think I’ve seen enough and I’m not afraid to—how to handle myself on court. It’s kind of hard to explain. I know that they won’t—their outbursts, unless I really mess up on court, their outbursts, even though sometimes they look like they’re yelling at us in our general direction, it’s not like they’re upset at us. They might be yelling at their coaches who sit above us, in the corners. You know, it’s never directed towards us.
I guess recently it’s more [Fernando] Verdasco, right? Verdasco’s been the one that’s been a jerk to these guys. I’ve never seen it, but I’ve definitely seen him at other tournaments, and it definitely is a bad look.
DS: Have you had any kind of personal interaction with the player that made you happy, or made you concerned, or whatever?
BP: No, they’re pretty chill. On court, it’s all business I guess.
There’s a match where [Gael] Monfils slipped and fell right in front of me. His racket’s all over the place, I reach out to pick him up and I forget. He’s a lean guy, but you know, these guys are all muscle. And when I reached out, I almost fell over on top of him, because he’s so muscular. It was like, Oh shoot, let me put some more strength into pulling him up. He’s a fun guy. He’s a fun guy out there.
DS: Do you get a taste of the players’ personalities when you’re up close and dealing with them in between every single point?
BP: So, take Monfils as an example. He can be playful with the crews out there. He has recognized some of us that have worked his matches. He’ll say hello to people. So he does keep it kind of loose on the court. I think that shows with his play, and just how he acts out there.
I think Monfils definitely was the one that stands out. James Blake has always been polite. He’ll thank us after every point, whenever we grab him tennis balls and a towel. He’s always been one of the nicest guys out there to us.
DS: Does the language barrier come up occasionally?
BP: It hasn’t happened yet. Because usually, if anything, there’s always hand signals. With Novak [Djokovic], for the longest, his ask for a towel is a very, very quick and subtle wave across his face. The top guys really don’t say anything to us. They just, you know, it’s the hand signal. Quick hand signal, we’re alert to it, we go get the towel when they need it. There’s never been a language barrier with any of the players.
DS: What are the common signals? I can visualize the towel one—it’s like a “can’t see me” gesture.
BP: The hand is kind of open, a quick swipe across their face. Or sometimes the more obvious one is just the point to the corner where we’re standing, for the towel. Those are the main signals. Ball—they wave their hand over. But usually they just give a quick subtle nod. And then we toss the ball to them.
DS: Who is the sweatiest player based on the towels that you’ve had to handle?
BP: Justin Gimelstob. He would have mounds of towels build up behind his chair or the chair next to him, or just on the side of his chair, on the court. Yeah, it was pretty weird.
DS: Did he ever explain why he needed that?
BP: No. No, I didn’t really have the time or really didn’t want to ask, I guess.
DS: Is there a certain routine that you guys have with the towels? Where do you stash them? And do you have a strategy for keeping them at bay when they get a little gross?
DP: So it depends on the court. On Arthur Ashe they have the barrier that divides the photographers and the patrons from the court. So we try and keep it on that barrier, but away from the television cameras because it’s kind of noticeable. In recent years, most of us would just lay it out, kind of, as best as we can, just so that we can pick it up easier and hold the towel out easier for the player.
In recent years I think the first big-name player to not care as much was Stan Wawrinka. And he didn’t mind if we just put it behind the Polo sign that the line judges stand behind. So we just hide it there and just dump it back there. Because it’s a long run inside Arthur Ashe. It’s a huge court, so there’s a lot of running, especially with the towels. Stashing it behind the Polo sign definitely helped.
DS: Right. And especially now that they had the serve clock and everything.
BP: Yeah, the serve clock, definitely. On the outer courts, we usually use the line judges’ chairs that sit in the corner, and I like to lay it out across the armrests just to make it easier for me to pull out when the player wants it. If that’s not available, there’s a chain link fence. We just throw it over there and sometimes the patrons are there to watch. I’m like, I don’t care, I’m just going to throw it on there, I’m sorry.
DS: And is it your guys’ judgment when to cycle those towels out, or it’s up to the player?
BP: The player asks. They’ll tell us.
DS: What are some of the more frustrating parts of the job? Are there any specific incidents?
BP: No, I can’t say anything’s frustrating. I’m sure everyone feels the same way that we’re all happy to be there. It’s a great view. You know, maybe a player might want something a little too much? It’s like, Dude, you just served an ace, do you really need a towel again? It’s little things like that, but those aren’t really big things. It’s not a frustration.
DS: You mentioned Gimelstob with the sheer volume of towels. Is there anyone else who has sort of an odd preference about their towels?
BP: So Rafa for years—I’m sure you might have noticed it—but the U.S. Open towels, there’s a front and back. See, if you open it one way, depending on how it’s oriented towards him, he’ll either put his hand straight through, or he’ll reach over and then make a hook. And then, you know, rub his face. So he definitely uses only one side of the towel. I forget which one, I think it’s one without the label. One side has the label, one side doesn’t, with the nice U.S. Open towels. One side is the nice terrycloth feeling and the other side is just the cotton. He would just hook his arm depending on how it went. Last year, I think he took them from his hotel, because I think sometimes the players complain about how dry the regular white towels are at the Open. So he had his own Nike duffel bag full of towels that were definitely from his hotel. And I remember feeling them, I’m like, These are actually really nice. They’re very heavy, they’re very plush, they’re very soft. And I thought he was just stealing them when he put them back in his duffel bag. I was like, Oh yeah, these definitely aren’t U.S. Open towels. These have to be from his hotel or something.
DS: I guess he is very particular about all things, and it makes sense that towels would be one of those things. Is there anyone else like that?
BP: The only other thing is [Richard] Gasquet. He just wants the towel in one clump, which is very unusual. He’s just like, hand it to me in one clump. And if it’s on his serve, he wants the ball that he won with—even if that’s on the receiver side, he’ll ask a ball person from the other side to basically serve him that ball.
DS: Do players have different habits when they’re selecting balls? I imagine they’re mostly going for the ones with the least fuzz so they can get the least air resistance.
BP: Yeah. [Maria] Sharapova definitely goes to the deuce side for balls. [Victoria] Azarenka definitely goes deuce-ad, deuce-ad, so she always alternates. Agassi was definitely very—he cared a lot. On the deuce side we would start with three balls versus, normally, we split them two and two, and the player has the last two. On the deuce side, he would start there and he always wanted three balls and hit one back. So to prepare for the next point, the backs would share the third ball to the deuce side in advance of the next point because of how quickly he worked. So it was always, 1-3, 3-1, kind of depending on which side he was gonna start the next point on. And if he noticed that the balls weren’t in the right place, he would wave the other back, to share the ball. I think he was a ball boy too when he was growing up, so yeah, he’s just very particular about that.
DS: So you think most of the players sort of have in their head a map of where the balls are on the court in any given time?
DS: Wow. I would not have guessed that. I would have guessed they had way too many variables already to consider that that one would be just kind of outsourced to you guys.
BP: We’re told as ball people to make sure that balls get rotated in as we’re holding them. So if you get a ball that was just used, try not to give that back to the player. And we try and do that unless a player specifically asks. Sometimes you notice them cycling through the balls; it’s because we’re giving them fresh ones but they want that specific one. They know these things.
DS: Who has been the choosiest selector of balls in your experience?
BP: I know [Nicolas] Almagro used to take all six. I don’t know why. Stan can be, sometimes. Federer is very—he doesn’t care about the ball. He just takes his two or three and just goes about his business. Most players don’t really care too much. They won’t take extra just to look at them.
DS: What are some of the things that you can pick up on about these playing styles that is really hard to appreciate unless you’re watching from that vantage point that you guys have access to?
BP: I think the spins that the players use, that’s the hardest thing to see on television. I hate using Roger as an example, but he does things with the racket, like—the ball just comes off the court—he’s got a lot of sidespin too, sometimes, so it kicks weird. Especially if he does a volley or drop shot. Not many players, from what I’ve seen, do it the way he does. Those are the little things that maybe on TV you don’t get to see as much, or see as well.
DS: One thing I’ve always wondered is when you have a player like Rafa who had so much power and spin whether the balls themselves suffer any consequences, or start to wear out faster.
BP: Actually, the one guy I noticed because of how much topspin he put: Carlos Moya. If you hold the balls, you start to notice—why are these larger, feel larger? Yeah, because of how much spin he’s putting onto the ball.
DS: That’s wild. What else can you learn from just by paying attention to the balls that are in play?
BP: A lot of paint marks on them. From the stringers, they put their little marker for every player. So yeah, that comes off really easily. Fuzz is another thing; you can definitely see it. It’s just a nice feel when it comes fresh out of the can, and after nine games they’re definitely very beat up.
DS: Do you ever see a player specifically pick a fuzzier ball for whatever reason? Or are they just always trying to have the least fuzzy one?
BP: I don’t think anyone I’ve seen purposely goes for the one that looks the worst. They definitely try and go for the least [fuzzy], so if there’s a chance for an ace, they can get it.
DS: Were you working the Open that [Juan Martin] Del Potro won, and do you have any memories from that one?
BP: Yeah, that year when he’s making a name for himself. I just remember he was a little odd, too. Just imagine this big lumbering giant—he’s great, he’s walking towards you wanting the ball, so you toss him one ball. He’ll take that one. Toss him another. For some reason he contorts his body to evade that second ball. And then I toss him the third one, he’ll take that one. So he would do that every time, and I was like, This is just so weird. I would throw it right at his midsection, right down the center line essentially. And he would make every effort to contort his body into a S so that his lower legs would not be hit by the ball. I mean, I think in more recent years I don’t think he’s done that, from what I remember. I haven’t worked too many of his matches unfortunately because of injuries and just timing. But yeah, that was the one thing I remember. He would avoid the second ball.
DS: So would he be laughing as he did it, or just kind of do it seriously?
BP: I think he had a knowing look on his face. He’s looking at me, [and] I was like, Are you sure about that, man?
Have any good stories about working behind the scenes at a tournament? Drop a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.