Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Inside a dimly lit tennis bubble in Arlington on a humid June morning, Alfredo Casta is living out his dream. The 50-year-old Puerto Rico native sprints around the court as sweat collects on his white visor and listens intently as men and women half his age shout instructions at him. 

Casta has accomplished plenty in his life. In 1998, he founded an information technology consulting firm, Cascades Technologies, Inc., which he now co-owns with his wife. They raise two teenagers in the D.C. area and Casta is on the board of trustees for the Puerto Rico Science, Technology, and Research Trust and was the chairman of the board for the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He travels to Puerto Rico at least once a month to help with hurricane recovery efforts.

But on this day, he has just one goal: to prove to those in charge that he is a worthy of being a Citi Open ballperson. Casta, who lives in Potomac Falls, Virginia, is one of about 20 candidates trying out this morning, the second of two Citi Open ballperson tryouts hosted during the late spring by the local tennis tournament, which begins this weekend at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. Most attendees are high school students hoping to be on the same court as their favorite players or looking for a way to collect community service hours during the summer.

The minimum age for participants is 14. There is no maximum age, a fact that works in the favor of two people in attendance aiming to qualify for the team: Casta—and me. 

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

“I’ve always wanted to do this,” Casta says during a break. “As a kid, just seeing the pros on TV. But life got in the way.”

Ballkids—or ballpeople—fill one of the most visible jobs in professional tennis. During a match, they interact with the players more than anyone else on the court. But because of the nature of the job, they’re also some of the least understood, and are sometimes underappreciated.

It’s hard to fully grasp something that isn’t meant to be noticed.

“The whole point is not to be seen and to be in the background,” says Jeff Zhang. “It’s this whole unseen orchestration between the chair umpire, lines judges, ballpersons, fans, players, the whole big community. We all have to play our part for the event to go smoothly.”

During tryouts, Zhang serves as a mentor to those hoping to make the team. If someone forgets which side to roll the balls to, he points them in the right direction.

Zhang has been a ballperson for Citi Open since 2007, and in 2014 made it to the big leagues, the U.S. Open in New York. The 27-year-old Arlington resident has been a ballperson for players like Venus Williams, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray, and as I line up for the speed drill, one of the three tests at the tryout, he is the calming presence I need.

The first thing that comes to my mind is how slow I am. I launch myself into a sprint toward the net, plant my feet, and then power my 31-year-old legs back to the baseline. We do this four times. Each time I finish last. By the time the next person is up, I’m out of breath.

It’s been five minutes since the tryout began. 

“It’s definitely a lot more challenging and a lot more to it than meets the eye,” Zhang tells me later. “A lot more goes into it than watching tennis.”

After the speed drill, the small group I’m in heads over to the catching drill. This is an important part of being a ballperson, I realize. A Citi Open ballperson chair tells us to use both hands to scoop up the ball. Don’t try to cup it with one hand, she warns. During the match, balls are constantly being rolled to the side of the server after points.

The next drill tests our ability to roll the ball, quickly and accurately. A bad roll can delay the match for seconds, time that feels longer for the professional tennis player ready to get the point moving.

“Treat this as a professional sport,” Dan Yi tells us before the tryout. “This is a competition. A huge driver of who stays is performance. There’s an entire infrastructure of monitoring and evaluating kids and that starts today.”

Yi, 38, started as a ballkid in 1992, when the tournament only included men and was known as the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, and has been a ballperson chair since the early 2000s. There wasn’t an age limit when he first started, and tryouts did not begin until three years ago, so Yi proudly recounts how, at 12, he made it to the doubles final.

A year later, he was a ballkid in the singles final, won by Amos Mansdorf of Israel. 

“I was really excited about ballboying my first singles final, got really pumped, and then the guy who won the title is someone who no one has probably heard of,” says Yi, laughing at the memory. “Then I kind of just did it every year.”

Reaching the final is a badge of honor. What tennis fans don’t realize is that a highly regimented competition between ballpeople takes place within the tennis tournament. The tournament starts with about 120 ballpeople on the first weekend, all of whom work through Tuesday. Then the cuts begin. The seven individuals on the ballperson chair committee cut 20 people each day until there are about 30 people left for the finals on Sunday.

This year, the tournament had about 90 returning ballpeople from previous years.

“We don’t say a new person can’t make it to the finals, but rarely do we take one new person to the final weekend,” says 35-year-old Emily Benton, one of the chairs. “They sort of go in with that knowledge. … For the older people, it is a competition. Everyone is good friends, so it’s not unhealthy, but people do get upset.”

During the last portion of the tryout, we get to mimic match play. The participants get to choose between two options: the net or the back. There are four “backs” on the court at all times, two on the side of the server and two on the side of the receiver. All four are responsible at some point for getting balls and towels to the players.

The two net positions stand or kneel at opposite ends of the net. They’re responsible for collecting the balls after the point and getting them to the back positions. This job requires a lot more running than the back.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Despite a drop in confidence in my running abilities after the first drill, I choose to try out as a net, hoping that my effort overshadows my deficiencies.

At one point during the practice match between two former collegiate tennis players, Kris Barnes and Lief Hollowell, I start moving my head side to side to watch the point—something you’re taught not to do—and hesitate before moving to grab the ball once the point is over.

“This is why you’re going to get cut!” Yi shouts from across the court.

I stumble toward the ball and sprint across the court, sweat dripping down my face. If this were a real match, I would not only have likely received an angry glare from a professional tennis player, I would still have to finish out my hour on the court before being mercifully relieved. Ballpeople at Citi Open work in teams of eight to 10 and are on the court for one hour before coming off for an hour.

Being an absent-minded ballperson makes a difference for everyone involved, including the players.

“As long as [the ballpeople are] really focused on who’s serving, the rhythm of the points, then you’re good,” says Madison Brengle, who was once ranked among the top 35 female players in the world. “If you get someone who’s looking up and not quite on it, it can maybe disrupt the rhythm of your serve a little bit. But as long as they’re paying attention, we appreciate what they do.”

There is a misconception that all a ballperson does is collect balls and give them to the players. A lot more is involved: Ballpeople have to retrieve towels for the players after points, hold umbrellas, grab water and snacks, run tennis rackets to the stringers, and keep track of the score at all times, while making sure they don’t affect the rhythm of the match. (For an example of what not to do, watch the episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer tries out to be a “ball man.”)

“If we do make a mistake, it can be very obvious,” says Joey Ramsey, a 31-year-old ballperson chair. “The match has to pause and there’s consequences to not having everything together.”

After the two-hour tryout, I huddle with Casta, who has been one of the stars of the morning. He sounds confident that he’ll be selected for the team. I’m not so sure about myself. Even though my tryout is technically unofficial, I still don’t want to be cut.

I go chat with a few other people who tried out. There’s 16-year-old Denaij Rose, a rising junior at C.H. Flowers High School who is here because she wants to “see players I idolize close up.” And Josh Keller, a 17-year-old who plays squash for Potomac School in Virginia. “I’ve been a fan of tennis my whole life,” he says.

A few weeks later, I call Ramsey, who tells me, to no surprise, that Casta is a “unanimous keep.” I could’ve worked on a few things, Ramsey says, but adds, “you picked things up pretty quickly and you showed very good effort.” I made the team. I decline, though for a moment, I know how Casta feels. I may not be on the court this Saturday, but Casta and a hundred other die-hard tennis fans will. And I can’t think of a better way for them to spend their time this summer.