MASON, Ohio -- Of the 1,367 volunteers that make the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament a well-oiled world-class event, 190 of them are the most visible of all.
They are the ball kids. Ball persons to be exact, as they range in age from 12 to 30. Some are young professionals who started as kids. Others are high school players with an affinity for the sport. Still more are simply eager to assist in matches played by top Women’s Tennis Association and ATP World Tour professionals.
“I like being on the court and just seeing the players in real life. No one gets that experience, even if you’re courtside on the first row,” said Angela Kyntchev, 16, a Notre Dame Academy student and fifth-year ball person.
Every August, ball persons flock to the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason to serve as court attendants. While most come from the Cincinnati area, about 40 hail from states like South Carolina, Minnesota and Texas.
Mary Conner, the W&S Open’s director of volunteers and internships, said being a ball person starts with studying a manual and learning the sport’s rules. Aspiring ball persons must pass tryouts to prove their agility, anticipation and efficiency.
Each match features six ball persons. All must remain still on the court during play, which is a habit some young hopefuls struggle to execute consistently. There are other nuances, too, like tossing a ball to a player on one bounce, rolling the ball in a straight line and moving quickly.
“It’s not for everybody, and that’s what I always tell the parents: Your kid really needs to want to do this because it’s hard work,” Conner said.
Ball persons are required to log at least five shifts in the first five days of the tournament, or when most matches are played. Their primary duties are to retrieve out-of-play tennis balls and tend to the needs of players and the chair umpire. That means providing water, holding umbrellas to shield players from the sun and squeegeeing the courts after rain.
A word to the squeamish: Ball persons also distribute and collect the towels that sweaty players use to mop their faces.
“It’s gross but you don’t think about it,” said Amy Eikenberry, 20, a Springboro native, University of Cincinnati student and ninth-year ball person. “(Rafael) Nadal has two towels, one on each side. He’ll give both the ball kids one. You don’t notice, but he needs it. He’s a sweaty man. It’s kind of gross but it’s just part of the job.”
While the responsibilities of being a ball person are significant, so are the rewards.
Kyntchev was star-struck when she saw Caroline Wozniacki up close -- it was the fulfillment of a “childhood dream,” she said -- and delighted to know phrases uttered by Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov in his native tongue. Kyntchev’s lineage is Bulgarian, too, so she easily deciphered his “Come on!” and “Can’t lose this point!”
Akash Bakshi, 18, had similar awe for doubles phenoms Mike and Bob Bryan. Bakshi, a Mason grad who’s bound for Ohio University this fall, met the twins during his six years as a ball person.
“They’re very nice people. Usually when you find out you’re a ball boy for a type of player like that, you get all nervous. But they were extremely kind and very generous on the court. Same thing with Steve Johnson, too. Super nice guy,” Bakshi said.
Rushi Katragadda, 17, a Springboro resident and University of Cincinnati freshman, said interactions with pros are a reason he has returned for seven years.
“We literally get to shake hands with a player possibly. We get to give them a towel and a ball that they’re going to play with and possibly win a tournament. It’s a lifetime experience and it’s really fun,” Katragadda said.
Because the sport can be a pressure cooker as players compete for points and prize money, ball persons have seen their share of frustrations and eruptions, too. Broken racquets and occasional tirades come with the territory. Ball persons are instructed to avoid showing emotion during such outbursts.
“I think we can all say that there are people that we don’t want to be on court with because of rudeness. If they’re belligerent on court, they’re not any different to us,” Eikenberry said.
Class acts like Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are far more prevalent. Federer even posed with ball persons after winning his record seventh W&S Open title two years ago, Eikenberry said.
So which ball persons are assigned to particular matches?
That’s up to Jan and Jason Aronstein, chairs of the Ball Persons Committee, who train and run the group. The more experienced ball persons work bigger matches before more substantial crowds.
Starting at the lower courts has its privileges too, as ball persons who come back year after year can see players develop. Eikenberry remembers Stan Wawrinka playing on the lower courts well before he won three Grand Slam titles and was moved to Center Court or Grandstand Court. Bakshi recalls Dimitrov roaming lower courts before becoming a Top 20 player.
The return rate for W&S Open ball persons is about 70 percent, Conner said, with a drop-off between high school and college. Because the event is one of only five in the world beside Grand Slams that unites WTA and ATP elite-level tennis during the same week at the same venue, the unique opportunity remains an attractive endeavor.
“What brings me back is the players,” Bakshi said. “And over the course of the last five, six years, I’ve made some really good friends. It’s a good way to wrap up the summer.”