(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
Trey Cook loves to watch tennis on television, but until the past year his attention was only on the players.
Now, the 17-year-old from Cary also catches himself watching the ball persons, to see how they operate at each tournament.
That’s because Cook was a ball person at last year’s inaugural Winston-Salem Open and is planning to return to this year’s event.
"It’s funny," Cook said. "After working the tournament, every time I watch on TV now I pay attention to what the ball kids do and I’ll analyze what they do compared to the way we do it. It’s not all about watching the players anymore."
Cook is one of about 60-70 ball persons who will be used for the tournament, which is scheduled for Aug. 18-25 at the Wake Forest Tennis Complex.
This year’s tryouts, open to anyone 13 and older, are scheduled for Friday, Aug. 3 from 2-4 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 4 from 10 a..m. to noon, or 2-4 p.m., all at the complex Those who are selected will then go through two more training sessions the week of Aug. 6-10.
Tournament director Bill Oakes got his start in the game as a ball boy at the Washington Star International years ago, and wound up serving as a ball boy for 11 years into his 20s. So he has a deep appreciation for the jobs that Cook and the rest of the WSO ball persons do.
"It’s a very important job and it’s not an easy thing to do," Oakes said. "They have to stay out there for hours on end in the hot sun, without making an error, with a lot of rules they have to follow, and most of them do a spectacular job. They are not appreciated enough for the job they do."
Cook, who is home-schooled but plans to take some college-level classes at Durham Tech this fall, has played seriously in the junior ranks for the past six years. He will stay with his grandmother who lives in Winston-Salem during tournament week, along with his younger brother Josh, who is also a ball boy.
Trey said that he thoroughly enjoyed being a ball person last year.
"One of the best things about being a ball boy is just being there and being able to serve the pros, just to be right there next to them handing them a towel or a ball," he said. "I’m a tennis player myself so I can really enjoy watching them, and just knowing what’s going on and being a part of it is the best. I love just being out there and being with them and being on the same courts as the pros."
Cook is a Roger Federer fan first and foremost, but he admits there’s one player he is especially looking forward to seeing this year: France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No. 6 in the current ATP rankings.
"He’s so much fun to watch," Cook said. "Hopefully I can do one of his matches."
The job, of course, is far more than just watching.
Ball persons have a long list of responsibilities during the match, the most noticeable being to collect balls after faults or after the point has finished, to hand or throw balls to the server before each point begins, and to supply the players with towels when requested between points. There are many protocols that must be followed so that ball persons blend into the surroundings and do not have any negative impact upon play.
Cook had additional responsibilities last year, as one of the team captains. There are eight ball persons for every match – two at the net, one in each corner of the court, two in the stands as substitutes – and Cook had to make sure that each did their job. The team captain is also responsible for dealing with the chair umpire and carrying out his instructions.
Cook said his team formed a bond as last year’s tournament progressed.
"The first few days the responsibilities were a little tougher and a little more stressful because you weren’t sure how the team was going to perform," he said. "You knew they were trying to put out matches quickly so you didn’t want to slow them down. There was a little bit of stress not knowing if someone on your team was going to drop a ball or not catch one or forget to give the players a towel – all things you have to think about when you’re getting used to it. It’s tough as captain because you have to watch everyone and kinda direct everyone a little bit.
"But then as the week went my team got really close and there was a camaraderie that kinda developed, and I didn’t have to worry so much about anybody on my team having to pay attention or anything. It got to like ‘We are all in this together.’"
Cook stressed that there is one absolute no-no for ball persons.
"The one thing you absolutely cannot screw up on is, don’t drop a ball in the middle of a point," he said. "That would be the most-important thing, and no talking. Obviously you want to do everything right, but if you’re a little slow getting them a towel or you don’t throw a ball perfectly, that’s OK. But if you drop a ball in the middle of a point, that’s bad. If it’s at a key moment in the match, that could change the match, so you can’t do that."
Two other musts: Get to know the players’ habits between points, and don’t take it personally if a player is having a bad day and gets mad.
"Obviously some of the players have their own quirks," Cook said. "Like, Andy Roddick, he’s really fast-paced. He always wants a towel every single time between points. So you have to be aware of what each player likes and doesn’t like, if he wants three balls when he’s serving or four or whatever.
"And you have to understand that these are all important matches and players are going to get mad, and sometimes ball kids are going to be the objects of players’ anger. It’s not that they’re mad at the ball kids, but just because they’re mad about the match. But I have to say, for the most part, the players were all really nice."
There is, by the way, one other big payoff for all the hard work the ball persons do, far beyond just being part of the tournament and being able to serve the players.
Cook said he came away from last year’s tournament all the more motivated to work on his game.
"Being around the pros," he said, "makes me feel like I can do a little more with my game."