From his hospital bed, Angelo Anderson could see the wheelchair, the cane and the walker with the tennis balls on the bottom. He told himself he would ditch them one by one to walk out on his own, after bullets shattered the bones in his upper leg and arm in Afghanistan.
This week, he is at the US Open as a ballperson. Here New York is striking a blow against inequality. Anyone over 14 can qualify after completing a grueling trial. Here, in fact, they are known, in a final nod to inclusiveness, as “ballpersons.”
So just over three years and hundreds of hours of physical therapy since the Navy corpsman was shot, Anderson will sprint across the court on that titanium rod that runs from his knee to his hip.
From the stands at the year’s last major tournament, Anderson won’t look much different from any other ballperson, other than that he’s a bit older than many at age 24. Only up close do the deep ripples of scars peek out from his uniform on his right bicep and thigh.
Tattooed on his leg is the date of his injury in Roman numerals. On his arm, is the signature of the surgeon who gave him a chance to run and throw again.
Anderson didn’t follow tennis much before he was offered a chance to try out for the Open. He’s been getting more and more into it ever since.
This year, said Tina Taps, who runs the selection programme, about 450 people applied for 75 slots.
They were recruited mostly through local schools, community boards, youth organisations and tennis programmes in Queens, Harlem and across the city. Yes, the vast majority are youngsters.
age no bar
The oldest person who ever attended a trial, she said, was around 80. In recent years, an Elvis impersonator repeatedly tried to join. “He was better off staying in his band,” Ms. Taps said.
Ballpersons are paid up to $9 an hour. Many tournaments, Ms. Taps said, consider the privilege of seeing the world’s greatest players up close reward enough. “I guess we do it a little differently,” she said.
Chasing tennis balls, catching one-hoppers and making baseline-to-baseline throws are part of the trials. “And you get free clothes,” said Avikar Singh, 15, who had arrived six hours before the real tryouts began, to warm up with a classmate from Francis Lewis High School.