How to Serve: What I Learned Running Around Picking up Sweaty Tennis Balls for Five Years

I spent five summers as a ball girl at Stanford’s Bank of the West Classic, a professional women’s tennis tournament held every summer. (I also did the two semi-final matches at the SAP Open in its final year, but the women’s tournament provided the core of my ballperson experience.) I was yelled at by Serena when I gave her a ball she did not want in the finals (tennis players, and athletes in general, are superstitious), I played a game of keep-away with Michael Chang when I was unsure whether or not he was going to keep a ball that rolled all the way back to him at the baseline after it was served into the net, and so much more. But first, what exactly is the job? What did it entail?

  1. It’s called ballPERSON because there were college students and recent graduates. There were grown men, and the some of the ballperson coordinators had to step in sometimes on court if there was an empty spot (injury, heat, lack of water, etc.) If you asked me at age 75 to step in to run around a tennis court picking up balls for professional players, I would honestly jump at the opportunity.
  2. There are 4 ballpeople(one in each corner) who deliver balls to players and handle their towels (with sweat.)
  3. There are 2 at the net, who run around picking up balls that go into the net and help roll balls across the court to the ones in the corners. They also keep track of balls. I did net mostly, and often was asked if I was alright because I got so sweaty running around!
  4. Ballpeople may also get water or bandaids for players, handle umbrellas, and more, depending on what the head chair umpire or the players ask of them.

So, what exactly does a ballperson learn on the job? Why should you (or someone you know) volunteer their time to be on court with professional players running around and picking up their sweaty towels and balls? What did I learn from five years of this?

John Isner (SAP Open Semi-Finals 2013), don’t make me come up there.
  1. How to work hard for little to no recognition. The best ballpeople are not seen! They need to receive and deliver balls to players quickly, efficiently, and cleanly. They are not the stars of the show…the players are, and ballpeople serve the players.
  2. Serve others. If a ballperson is running for a ball or about to roll a ball down to their teammate, they should first look at the player serving and see if they are looking at them, silently asking for a ball. If you’re getting them a drink or a bandaid, or doing an umbrella, or getting a new hairtie from their bag…that’s serving the player. Ultimately, you’re putting someone else before yourself, and in a way, you’re at their beck-and-call.
  3. How to work on a team. Yeah, I would have loved to be the only ballperson on-court with the players, and I got frustrated when a teammate threw a ball to a player but it bounced too close to them, or double-bounced (it should only bounce once, slightly more than halfway between the ballperson and the player), but I couldn’t run all over the place getting each ball that went into every nook and cranny. There’s a reason why there’s multiple ballpeople on court at each given moment (although there are different iterations where you can do a 5-ball-person team, or even a 4-person one, if need be. However, it is very difficult and I do not recommend it.)

Ultimately, it’s a fun job in which there’s more than meets the eye. It’s a ball, taught me about serving (pun intended), and I can’t imagine my middle- and high school-aged summers without it.