Sportsball: The tireless unseen fuel the Winston-Salem Open

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A young ball person stands ready for a pause in the match. (Photo credit Winston-Salem Open.)

You kneel at the dividing line. The net offers little protection. It’s the dog days of August; the sun scalds the hardcourt, the kneeling mat, the back of your neck. He bounces the ball. Once. Twice. Your knee slips in its own sweat. Don’t look down.

The ball ascends, hovers, then it’s gone — 120, 130, 140 miles per hour. Did you see it? Don’t think; here comes the return. It hits the net. Get it. Run across to the other side.

You’re made for this role — limber, persistent and fit. But you’re frightened, too. You’re only 12 years old.

Dozens will take the court next week during the Winston-Salem Open. Wake Forest hosts the seventh annual tournament that runs from Saturday through Aug. 26, and some of the world’s best players take part. Greensboro native and tournament favorite John Isner returns after a few years away. Sam Querrey, who defeated Andy Murray on his way to a Wimbledon semifinal in July, joins him, as do former Winston-Salem Open champions Kevin Anderson and Pablo Carreño Busta.

But among the professional players, about 80 others will take the court with them, and you’ll never know their names.

They’re indistinguishable, nearly invisible among the famous athletes. But they’re as essential as a NASCAR pit crew, or the below-deck rowers propelling a grand ship. They’re the tireless fuel that lets a tennis tournament run.

At Wake Forest’s Indoor Tennis Center on Aug 7, the ball persons begin to get ready.

Being a ball person is a serious task. With volleys rocketing in at tremendous speeds, anyone participating in the role risks serious injury. In order to prepare the young volunteers, the Open requires them to attend three of the four 90-minute training sessions in the two weeks before the tournament begins. For the first training session on Aug 7, about 30 kids are present. They had to be 12 years old by Aug 1, and no one looks older than 16.

The trainers begin with the rules.

Six ball persons take the court for every game. They’re numbered 1 and 2 at the server’s line, 3 and 4 at the net, and 5 and 6 behind the far line. As soon as the server takes the court, ball-persons 1 and 2 “present,” stretching one arm up and the other down, showing that each hand holds a ball. They both begin with three balls, and a server often signals for all three, checking each one’s fuzz and returning the least favorable. He places one in his pocket and readies the other for a serve.

At the training session, skilled adult players — two pairs of women and two pairs of men — fill the role of the Open’s contestants. They take the training seriously, playing at a high speed and signaling for balls while remaining silent and expectant.

When a ball hits the net, Nos. 3 and 4 react, speeding to retrieve it and often switching sides. It’s better to grab the ball and run clear across the court than to skid to a stop and return to the same side. The person not collecting the ball must follow this movement with no hesitation, switching if required.

The aspiring ball persons at the Indoor Tennis Center show incredible intensity. They sprint and scramble. They kneel on pads by the net with their hands on the ground like track sprinters in position. They watch with the seriousness of an altar boy, the attentiveness of a border collie.

(Photo credit Winston-Salem Open)

Parents look on as the first training session begins to unveil the intensity of the tasks their children will face. For one father, the magnitude of his daughters’ role isn’t cause for concern as much as a welcome opportunity.

Growing up in India, Umesh Raghavan had no chance to be a ball person or watch a tennis match from court-level. But in the United States, his twin 14-year-old girls are taking full advantage of the possibility.

Raghavan and his family moved to North Carolina from California a year ago, but not before his daughters had the chance to be ball persons at the Stanford Open just before their family’s move across the country. They now live in Waxhaw — more than 100 miles from Winston-Salem — but Raghavan will drive his daughters to each of the four training sessions, then again to their tournament assignments.

All three, father and daughters, are thrilled at the opportunity, he says.

“It becomes kind of a science, the way they present the balls, the towels, and how they rotate,” Raghavan says. “It’s not just about watching the players, but it builds self-discipline, too.”

The Winston-Salem Open runs from Saturday to Aug. 26 at Wake Forest University. More info at winstonsalemopen.com

Outside the center, workers assemble the grandstands for the courts where the Open will take place. Many kids in Winston-Salem and beyond await their upcoming days in the sun — if not their own moments of fame, then very much among it.