Around the Island

Gimme Shelter: My U.S. Open debut

With the U.S. Open winding up this weekend, I’ve been thinking about my own appearance at Center Court a number of years ago.

Stop laughing.

An editor thought it would make a good story if I tried out to be a ball boy. He looked over my head into the middle distance, already writing the headline: “You won’t be a ball boy,” he said. “You’ll be a ball geezer.”

It wasn’t so strange, really. Well, of course it was, but when I got to the National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows and signed up for the tryout, I met a lawyer from Long Beach who was working his 29th Open. Why did he do it? “Once you make it, you’ve got the best seat in the house,” he said. “It’s exhilarating. Twenty thousand screaming fans.”

Those were the days.

But the lawyer was talking about making it, not trying to make it. The day I tried out, there were 228 people hoping to fill about 60 spots as ball retrievers. I remember standing on the sideline at the net, wondering if any of the other hopefuls had trained on pastries and Budweiser.

I was taken under the wing of Supervisor Dorian Waring, a fit, middle-aged woman. She started coaching me: legs spread wide as shoulders, hands clasped behind back, head up. It dawned on me that tennis is the only sport that requires servants in short pants. But I quickly tried to focus.

Hard to do when I was about to be embarrassed before a crowd of people standing 10 feet behind my clasped hands. Mostly aged 14 to 20, they were obscenely fit, gloriously tanned, confident as gods — brutal youth.

I’d heard their snickers, superior laughter and jokey condemnations about another geezer, Kenny Kramer, “the original” Kramer, who had tried out a few minutes before me. (It was Alice In Wonderland time. Here was a guy imitating an actor who had imitated him on Seinfeld.)

Supervisor Waring had told me about the oldest ball boy to work the Open. “The guy’s become mythical,” she said. “About 10 years ago a man from Arkansas showed up, 55 years old. He made it, worked the tournament, kept to himself and then just disappeared. No one’s heard from him since.”

The oldest tryout this day was a 59-year-old registered nurse and grandmother from Brooklyn, who explained to me, “I’ve always been competitive. I motivate myself. I give myself goals.”

Kramer had arrived with his publicist and photographer. He was all legs, long gray hair, enormous teeth and a baseball cap on backwards, quick with the quip. “Speed,” he said, reading from the requirements for the job. “Hmm. Don’t use it anymore.” When a local reporter from one of the New York TV stations threw a ball, Kramer went for it like a spaniel, making the reporter and her crew happy by falling down.

But hot-dogging didn’t earn him a ball boy job. Supervisor Waring had lectured us: “Go hard. Don’t give up on a ball. No showboating. A good ball person should be invisible out there. Be quick, be ready, be focused.”

My turn. I eyed a 16-tear-old kid with a live arm standing at the baseline with a basket of yellow balls, ready to throw them rapid-fire into the net while I had to run, stoop and pick up, and try to keep from blacking out.

I turned to Supervisor Waring and said, nodding toward the boy at the baseline who was grinning like a horror-movie hangman, and said, “Tell that kid to take it easy on me.”

“Sure,” she said. Then she yelled, “Make him run! He’s from Long Island!”

The future Cy Young Award winner smoked one into the net and I was off. Strange, but I had forgotten how to run. I reached down, picked the ball clean and headed for the sideline, wondering: Why does one leg feel shorter than the other? I wheeled and threw a perfect one-bouncer to a kid in the far corner. I congratulated myself, but was brought out of my reverie by Supervisor Waring’s shouts, “C’mon, Long Island! Move it!”

A ball into the net, and I was off again. Why was I hopping, instead of running? Up court, down, stop, pick, run. I heard nothing from the crowd; I was in a chasing zone, responding to Ms. Waring’s spoken commands like a basset hound on a short leash. Finally, heart booming, winded, I got to the end line and threw 20 balls the length of the court. Nothing to it. Cake.

Supervisor Waring graded me. Speed: Adequate. Footwork/Agility: Adequate. Throwing ability: Good. Hands: Good.

The Brooklyn nurse/grandmother made the cut. There were tears in her eyes.

The thought came: Why not me, too?

I asked Supervisor Waring, “Could I do this?”

If looks could kill, I was wounded. “Only if you know someone really important,” she said.