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Hundreds of Hopefuls Flood Flushing Meadows for 2011 US Open Ballperson Tryouts

June 24, 2011 01:16 AM
By Nicholas J. Walz, USOpen.org

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y.
- Simple and silly as it sounds, you can't be on the court at the US Open if you don't show up.

Perhaps that's why a torrential midday downpour and the closing of a few major roadways didn't deter nearly 600 registered participants 14-and-over who came to the 2011 US Open Ballperson Tryouts at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

The massive turnout of participants and their families from around the country wrapped all the way around the Indoor Tennis Center and long past both the Grandstand and Louis Armstrong Stadium, hiding beneath umbrellas and hoods yet smiling as cameras took pictures and reporters interviewed along the line. The attendance figure represents an approximate 25 percent increase in participation from 2010.

"I can't believe with the threat of rain - then having this kind of rain - that we had this many individuals come out to be ballpeople," said Tina Taps, Manager of Tennis Programs at the USTA National Tennis Center and US Open Director of Ballpersons. "Phenomenal."

Ominous clouds hovered over Queens from the early morning onward, forcing part of the annual NTC tradition indoors. At around 5:00 p.m., the rain had subsided enough to allow for all-around participants - those who were trying out for both net and baseline duty - onto the outer courts to show off their agility and strong throwing arms.
 
Some participants fared better than others who were getting their first taste of what its like to live along the lines.

"What I came away with just now is how in shape of an athlete you need to be to do this," said 33-year-old Walter Silsbee of Newburgh, N.Y. in his first tryout. "I used to run track and play basketball and I thought this would be pretty easy for a guy like me - but looking at everyone else out here, I'm struggling to keep up.

"Now that I think about it, having to do this every day while professional matches are going on? (Laughs) No way. I think I'm going to have to just watch at home."

Silsbee wasn't the only one guilty of a case of slight overconfidence. Tori Thomas, 17, comes from a tennis and swimming background and will attempt to continue both sports as a freshman walk-on at Siena College in the fall. The Brattleboro, Vt. native found cross-court throws to be problematic.

"It was either I was throwing them way too wide or not hard enough because I was trying to be accurate," said Thomas. "It is harder than it looks on television."

A few dozen will make the first round of cuts and will receive notification of a second tryout in July. To make the grade and become a part of the ballperson crew is a distinction that many keep coming back year after year to reclaim. Taps herself has served in her leadership role since 1989, with the 2011 Open being her 22nd campaign directing a largely unsung part of the US Open universe.

"I believe that there's a role for every kind of background with our ballperson group," said Taps. "Right now, we have a 62-year-old who works really well in his role behind the lines back for a second year. It is never about age so much as it is about the quality of work you can put forth."

The tryouts were not only a hit with the general public - both local and national media members on hand also were offered a white Polo shirt and put to the test. Personalities such as Sara Hines from NBC's Today, along with reporters from The New York Times, MSG Varsity, NY1 and the Queens Tribune, all performed under the watchful eye of Taps and her trusted staffers.

"There are a few who had some skills; if they can dedicate the time, that's the question," said Taps of the journalistic lot. "It is great that they had the desire to prepare themselves for today. Their tryouts are judged just like any other and anyone would be accepted, provided they perform and can fulfill the requirements."

One of the hopefuls braving the rain, Denise Castelli, ran after loose balls and made all the required throws. Remarkably, she earned high marks on a pair of legs upon which she recently learned to walk once again - one real, one prosthetic.

A 25-year-old from Netcong, N.J., Castelli is another first-timer and a part of the "Challenged Athletes Foundation" for support of people with physical disabilities so they can pursue active lifestyles through physical fitness and competitive athletics.

"They've done so much for me and changed my life. They granted me legs," said Castelli.

A competitor all her life, Castelli was a collegiate softball player at the University of New Haven when she injured her right leg sliding into a base in 2008 and suffered an infection after an operation to repair the broken bones. After a series of unforeseen complications due to the infection, doctors were forced to amputate the gangrenous leg in 2009 after 18 months in the hospital.

"It was a long haul," said Castelli. "I went home physically disabled, but I don’t think what happened mentally disabled me. I've been a physical person my whole life and I always want to get out and do things. This seems like a fun opportunity."

Castelli lined up with three other would-be ball boys and performed the drills with the skills of a natural athlete, sprinting from sideline to sideline without misstep. Her softball background came into play during the cross-court tosses, which she admits took a few attempts to get hang of things.

"What makes this hard is the unknown," said Castelli. "I had no idea what a ballperson was supposed to do before today.

"The first few (throws) I spiked in the ground, probably because I'm so used to throwing a softball but I got the rhythm soon after that and I thought the last of my throws were great."
 

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