(Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of stories featuring players, tournament officials, sponsors, volunteers and others involved with this year’s Winston-Salem Open.)
By John Delong
Bill Hearn plays tennis three or four times a week, watches tennis on television as much as possible, and figures he knows the game pretty well.
But little could he have imagined the education he was in for at last year’s inaugural Winston-Salem Open.
Hearn, the owner of Commercial Framing in Winston-Salem, worked with three other volunteers as the tournament’s coordinators for ball boys and ball girls. He quickly found that the role was both fascinating and multi-faceted, with all sorts of protocols and nuances to be learned and then taught to the youngsters.
For sure, this is about far more than just handing balls or a towel to the server.
"I have so much respect for the job these kids do," Hearn said. "It’s amazing, really. Before the tournament began we tried to make a list of everything the ball people needed to know, remember and execute, and there were literally hundreds of things. Then we learned something new every match. At the end of the tournament, we could have written a book."
Tryouts for ball persons for this year’s tournament will be held at the Wake Forest Tennis Center on Friday, Aug. 3 from 2-4 p.m., and Saturday, Aug. 4 from 10 a.m.-noon and again from 2-4 p.m. The minimum age is 13.
Those who make the cut will go through two training sessions the week of Aug. 6-10.
The tournament used about 60 ball boys and ball girls last year. Hearn said that about 20 from last year have already committed to returning this year, so there are spots for about 40-50 new ball persons.
The ball boys and ball girls primarily come from the Triad, but some last year came from as far away as Rocky Mount, Raleigh, Charlotte and Wilmington. Hearn said the majority are teenagers who play tennis at area high schools and local clubs, but there are some Wake Forest students and twenty-somethings as well.
Hearn has served as a volunteer at Winston-Salem tennis events before. He assisted players, coaches and stringers at the 2007 Davis Cup quarterfinal between the United States and Spain at Joel Coliseum. Then the following year he worked in the media room for the quarterfinal between the United States and France.
This job is the most rewarding of them all.
"The satisfaction you get in this job is seeing the transformation of these young people from having very little training – we were only able to get in a couple of training sessions before the tournament last year – seeing them transform from just knowing the basics about being a ball boy or ball girl to becoming proficient. More than proficient, really.
"To see what happens the first weekend, when we need a large number of ball personnel because there are so many matches, and to then pare it down to the best of the best for the semifinals and finals – to see that group go from Day One to working the finals is incredible to see."
Hearn uses a group of eight ball persons for each match. Six are on the court – one in each corner, two at the net – with two replacements in the stands. Each group has a captain, who reports directly to the chair umpire. Hearn also has one supervisor in the stands at each match to monitor the groups, especially during times of extreme heat. The groups work each match without a break, then often go and work another match later in the day or evening.
Hearn said that, much like umpires in baseball or referees in basketball, the best ball persons are the ones that go relatively unnoticed.
The best ball persons also need to read and react like a linebacker, because so much of what they do is spontaneous after a point is finished.
"I’ve heard it described as they must be ‘stealthy,’" Hearn said. "They are at their best when they are not noticed. They aren’t supposed to call attention to themselves. Their job is not to disrupt the flow of the match or the routine of the players.
"They need to learn very, very quickly the nonverbal communications of the players – when they want the balls, when they want a towel, how they want the balls put on their racket. All this is done simply by eye contact with the player and the ball person. If the player has to ask you something, you should have read his cue. If a player has to wait on something, you’ve misread a cue. So it’s very important to pay attention to the players after the points are over. It becomes obvious after a short period what they’re asking for."
Nuances? There are hundreds, literally.
"We teach them how to fold their hands behind their back, how to display the balls to the players," Hearn said. "If you only have one ball you put it in one hand and the other goes behind your back. Then there’s how many balls you’re supposed to have, where the balls go. In an average tie-breaker the players will switch sides and the balls will switch sides eight to 10 times, and the ball personnel not only need to keep up with where the balls need to go, but when the changeovers are. That’s probably one of the most complicated things the ball persons will do.
"So it’s a bunch of things like that. But if you have a good captain and you have ball persons that are sharp, they will execute it flawlessly."
Hearn is quick to give credit to Herve Roche, Dia Roberts and Forsyth Country Club tennis pro Adam Thompson, the other coordinators for the ball boys and ball girls. Hearn is the one who takes the lead when the TV crews want an interview, but Roche, Roberts and Thompson all have specific niches.
"They are just invaluable," Hearn said. "Herve has this incredible mind that can put together a group of eight knowing that he has to put together three more groups of eight after this. He just has this incredible ability to put together teams. On the first weekend you can imagine it’s like a fire drill, but Herve keeps this calm about him. All you need to do is tell him what the task is and he is not only able to see the task at hand but what comes after and after and after. He’s so incredible.
"Dia is the female side of it, because you’ve got to remember, half of these are ball girls. Sometimes she can relate to the girls better than we can, if they’re having some difficulty on the court. She’s great at dealing with them.
"And Adam, he’s this bigger than life New Zealand guy. Everybody looks up to him because he’s so tall, but they look up to him in another way, too. He’s the guy you go to when you have a serious question about a nuance, or ‘How should I have done this?’ The kids respect him so much because of his tennis knowledge. He has an answer for everything because he’s been there, done that. I’m a tennis player, I play three or four times a week and so do Herve and Dia, so we all know the game very well. But when it comes to these very specific type questions, Adam is the one who knows exactly what to say. He helped us so much last year.
"So we’ve got a great group. Really all of our decisions and all the instructions are from all four of us. It’s fun to be a part of it."