Stars of tournament aren’t always on center court

CARLSBAD — “The best ball person is one that goes unnoticed, if you’re noticed we’re in trouble,” said Saundra Cima, ball persons coordinator.
Unless, that is, they’re doing something extraordinarily difficult.
One of those moments happened at the Mercury Insurance Open tournament during a Monday night match on the stadium court of the La Costa Resort and Spa. Ball person Katia Brunson, 17, was huffing and puffing while keeping up with CoCo Vandeweghe, one of the tournament’s players. Katia single-handedly performed to every one of Vandeweghe’s requests, handing her a towel at a moment’s notice, taking the towel from her and all the while receiving tennis balls and placing them on Vandeweghe’s racquet just right.
“It was exciting; CoCo kept me on my toes. I liked having a lot of stuff to do, it was tiring, but it was fun. And I felt really relieved at the end,” Katia said.
The ball persons range in age from 10 to 21 — 10 being the minimum age a ball person can be, per tournament regulations, explained Ron Marquez, ball persons coordinator and tennis coach at Cathedral Catholic High School. He too was a former ball person.
“When they’re on court, it’s strictly business…they’ve got to make sure the balls are picked up and the match runs smoothly, because they kind of do control the pace of the match,” Marquez said.
Ball persons are contacted months before the actual tournament is slated to begin. Marquez said they always contact the kids who have been ball persons with the tournament before first to see who wants to come back, and then they hold tryouts for new ball persons. This year 111 ball persons were selected.
Tryouts include drills where speed, coordination and how still they are while on the court are monitored. “Basically what we’re looking for is somebody that’s not going to be a distraction on the court,” Marquez said.
Marquez said that their ball kids have a good reputation with the WTA and the tournament’s umpires.
“The unique thing about our kids, they all just love tennis — that’s the key thing about all of them,” Marquez said. It’s a fun week, it’s like camp; they get to see some of the best female pros in the world.”
Some of the former ball kids have even come back as players to compete in the qualifying round of the tournament, including Rancho Santa Fe resident Gaby DeSimone.
“Our goal with them is that they have a really good time, but more than anything else, they learn how to be young adults and how to have good work ethics,” she said.
“And we get the kids coming back and they’ll say to us ‘this was the best summer experience I’ve ever had,’” Cima added.
Annie Squier, 21, started as a ball person when she was 10. She’s now a team manager who supervises the kids on the court and helps teach them. It’s something she loves to be a part of every year, she said.
“I love the experience, I love feeling like a part of a team, and I love being able to help people that are younger than me feel like they’re part of a team, as well.”
The hardest things about being a ball kid are the same ones that make a good ball kid, explained Squier. Some of the best traits a ball kid can have are leadership, attentiveness, which is probably the biggest thing about being a ball kid and being able to sit still.
Those who do exhibit those skills are rewarded by making it to the finals’ matches.
Some of the players can be challenging to work with, too.
“Sometimes, when the players get aggravated, they’ll take it out on the ball kids, and that makes us look bad,” Squier said.
“Players are superstitious,” Marquez said. Oftentimes the two coordinators will go over a list of idiosyncrasies of the players — how they want to receive the tennis balls, how they’ll take their water bottles, even to how they’ll receive their towels.
For example, CoCo Vandeweghe will always get her towel from the Deuce side (the right side of the tennis court); and she’ll always take three balls but always return two, Marquez said.
“For us, it makes it a little tougher to train and pay attention to, but it makes the kids better as a group and look more professional, they know what they’re doing…that is probably the toughest thing the kids have to pick up on that,” he said.
Matt Eisendrath, 16, is in his second year as a ball person. At times the job can get risky, he said. “And you don’t want to mess up the pros.”
His favorite experiences during this year’s tournament have been on the Zoe Scandalis matches, he said. “She was really nice, and every time I handed her the towel she would say ‘thank you.’”
“(Ball persons) take a lot of pride in what they do, and we take a lot of pride in the fact that they have a lot of fun, but we expect a lot of work out of them,” Cima said.
Kids interested in becoming ball persons may contact the Mercury Insurance Open tournament office at (760) 930-7032 or go online to mercuryinsuranceopen.com.

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