“I may be old,” Kramer told a skeptical young man at tryouts. “But I’m spry.”
Ballpersons still skew young and male. About one-quarter of them are female, Taps said. In 2009, when The New York Times wrote about a 61-year-old ballperson named Jerry Loughran, he was the only ballperson over 50. The median age that year was 18.
The change to rolling may attract a more diverse group, in gender and age.
“We do hope it attracts more, but I don’t know that it will,” Taps said. “Maybe there’s that girl out there saying, ‘I tried last year and I couldn’t do as well,’ and this year they’re thinking, ‘Wow, now I have a little bit better chance. Now I don’t have to put that throw into it. Let me go back and try again.’ ”
The U.S. Open will hold its annual tryouts for ballpersons on June 26. More than 100 of the roughly 275 positions are open, the tournament said. The rest will be filled by returning ballpersons.
The U.S. Open was the only one of the majors where ballpersons regularly throw the ball between them, as balls are rotated around the court between points and service games. At Wimbledon, the French Open and the Australian Open, balls are generally rolled, as smoothly across the surface as possible. The ball boys and girls whip balls with a knee-bending, underarm motion, like bowlers or players of Skee-Ball.
By contrast, the U.S. Open is — or was — an aerial show between points. Ballpersons hucked balls to one another to get the balls to the service end. The best hit their targets on one bounce. What the choreography lacked in elegance it made up for in entertainment.
“That was part of the U.S. Open’s identity,” said Gill Gross, 19, a former U.S. Open ball person. He added: “If Wimbledon took away strawberries and cream, would the tournament fall apart? No, but it would lose one of its defining character traits.”