U.S. Open–Not This Year (concluded)

I expect whenever I go to the U.S. Open some experiences similar to past ones: I will get lost coming out of the parking lot and I will wonder where we are going to find dinner in Queens. But one thing will have changed since we first started going to this tennis tournament—the role of the ball people. Each tennis match has six ball people: two stationed behind each base line and two at the net. Their basic job is to scoop up the loose balls when not in play and get them to end of the court where the server is.

          When I started watching tennis, the American ball kids threw the balls. Those at the net only had to toss them from mid-court to the back wall, but those behind the baselines threw the entire length of the playing surface. To be a ball person, one had to be able to throw the ball, and I thought that was right because, in my opinion, real American athletes should be able to throw. In contrast, ball people at tournaments in other countries rolled the ball as if they were involved in some sort of kiddy game. The ball kids beyond the baselines would bend down and roll the balls to the net boys and girls, who would then collect them, turn and roll them to the kids who were going to supply the servers. Of course, I thought, those Italian, French, English, and even Australian people had to do this because they could not throw. That thought made me proud to be an American where we can do so many things.

          The NBP has always been able to throw well and knows and played tennis. A natural to be a ball person at the U.S. Open, I thought. So one year I took the NBP to the ball-person tryouts at the National Tennis Center about six weeks before the Open. I had brought a ball for the NBP to warm up with, and we found a vacant court on which to practice.

The person in charge of the tryouts explained that people who could only throw from the net to the baseline and not the full extent of the tennis court might still be hired, but their odds were lessened since they would have to be stationed at center court instead of being able to fill any of the six ball person positions. The NBP did well and was better by far than most of the tryouts. Part of the reason was that the progeny was a gifted athlete, but also because many of the kids could barely throw. I had expected that many of the girls might not be able to loft the ball from one end to the other, but I was surprised at how few of the boys could. When I was growing up, almost all the boys I knew could throw reasonably well, but perhaps my memories were distorted. I hung out primarily with guys who played sports; maybe there were lots of boys I did not know who could not throw a ball sixty or seventy feet, but I still think they were not the majority. At the U.S. Open tryouts, however, it seemed that maybe only a quarter of the male teens could throw adequately.

          The NBP was going to be a shoo-in to be a ball person, and I already was trying to figure out transportation and other logistics, but then I started to feel some guilt. Unlike the progeny and me, many of those seeking the position seemed to be from the less affluent classes, and probably the weeks-long pay could be important to them and their families. Was it right that the NBP took a position that otherwise would have gone to one of them?

          At the time the NBP was identified as a girl, and as a ball girl she was going to have to wear a tennis skirt designed by one of the sponsors—Ralph Lauren or Puma or Adidas. And here I failed as a father. Even then, I should have known that skirt-wearing was a problem, a major, major problem. The NBP, although not then openly identifying as non-binary, fiercely resisted skirts or other “girls” clothes. I should have gone to those in charge and at least asked if the NBP could wear shorts, but I did not think of it. A few weeks later, the NBP got the official notice that she was accepted but declined the invitation.

          Somewhere between those tryouts twenty-five years ago and today, however, the role of the ball kids at the U.S. Open changed. They no longer throw the tennis balls, but as in Europe, awkwardly roll the balls as if they were in some sort of hurried, miniaturized lawn bowling event. They no longer seem American but Frenchified, fussy, foreign. I don’t know precisely when the change came or why. Of course it could be that wild throws might endanger spectators and it’s the fault of the insurance companies. But I believe that at least part of the reason is that fewer and fewer American kids can throw a ball as well as American kids ought to be able to do. Abilities have changed, and, apparently, so must American standards.

          Alas. I mourn the result. But I still like the way the NBP can throw.

(I urge you to read the guest post from the NBP on August 3 where he narrates some of his tennis experiences including the U.S. Open tryouts. I hope that I will not be blamed too much, even though I feel as if I could have been a better father.)

Non-Binary Tennis

I am the “non-binary progeny” of my dad’s blog. Non-binary, should you not know (and I don’t mean to imply that you are unaware, but a whole lot of people don’t know this), means that I identify as neither a woman nor a man. However, my gender “assigned at birth” was female, and I was raised as a girl. This proved to be complicated for me growing up. Playing tennis revealed some of the issues that a regular girl might not have encountered, but I was not a regular girl.

When I was nine my parents started renting a summer place in Pennsylvania. It’s a really “nice”—er, I mean “civilized”–place: A small community of about 300 families, it has 27 holes of golf, a beautiful Olympic-sized swimming pool, and 10 tennis courts. As a kid, I hated it. There were almost no kids there my age. I was a year younger than one group of girls, who, of course, formed a clique, and I was a year older than other girls who, of course, wanted nothing to do with me. I played mucho tennis.

At 11 or 12 I was still playing tennis at our summer place. I had rather longish hair at the time, and it was very thick. That’s what girls had, after all—long, @#$%& hair. However, “hair things” (ties, scrunchies, elastics), those things designed to tame your long hair, seemed like accessories or jewelry. I hated accessories and jewelry, so I wouldn’t have one of those “hair things” touch me. No matter how hot I got, I would keep my hair unbound. My hair would, of course, fall into my face and stick to the sweat there. Pleasant. My mother, seeing me struggle with my hair with sweat pouring down my face and neck tried to convince me that boys and men would put their hair in pony-tails–“like Andre Agassi,” she said. Well, even though he was one of my idols, I wouldn’t budge. For years I wouldn’t yield to a hair thing. For some unfathomable reason, neither would I allow my hair to be cut. I must have been in a constant state of dehydration.

And then, of course, there was the issue of tennis clothes—more specifically, the dreaded tennis skirt. It was common in the 1990’s that girls wore tennis skirts, or worse, tennis dresses. Some got away with wearing shorts, but skirts were more common. Personally, I think it’s absurd to wear a skirt for anything athletic. In tennis it seems totally nonsensical, and it’s plainly uncomfortable to stick a ball in your tennis underwear when you could so easily put it in a pocket. So I wouldn’t wear a skirt. I don’t think I ever in my life wore a skirt. (Under duress, I once or twice succumbed to culottes or gaucho pants in place of a skirt, but that’s another story.) I only wore shorts; that, after all, is what boys wore. During the school year I played in various tennis clubs around the city. The main one in which I trained enforced an all-whites rule. (Dress codes are the sacred cows of tennis clubs; after all, even Serena wears white at Wimbledon.) You could wear any combo of tennis attire, even t-shirts without collars, but they had to be all white. We always checked before coming to a given court, but luckily, none of the courts where I played enforced a skirt rule for girls.

So now I’m 16 and a pretty fair tennis player. Dad thought it would be fun for me to try out to be a ball-person at the U.S. Open–you know, hang out with the stars, get a few autographs, pick up a few souvenirs. I had a thrower’s arm (thanks to him) and could easily loft a ball across an entire court, which was a distinct requirement.* If you couldn’t throw a ball the length of the court, you were cut. I was also good at fielding balls (Dad had trained me well), so after the first round, I was accepted. It was a rule, of course, that all ball-people had to wear the uniform of the athletic sponsor (e.g., Fila, Izod, Ralph Lauren, whatever). Boys got shorts and boy-cut shirts. Guess what girls got? I declined the acceptance into the ball-person ranks. There was no way that I was going to be seen in a tennis skirt by millions of TV viewers.

Much as I hate the idea of tennis skirts, I do greatly and deeply thank tennis for allowing me to wear sports bras all the time. Sports bras aren’t all frilly or lacy. They are made of sensible, non-chafing material. And even though I had no chest to speak of, I wanted to hide what there was of it, and sports bras were tight enough to serve as a binder. They made me look flat-chested, and because I was coming to realize how much I wanted to rid myself of feminine attributes (no skirts, no lace—no chest), they were perfect.

My high school didn’t have a tennis team, but I continued to play tennis outside of school and got to be a better-than-pretty-fair player. College coaches were impressed enough with the video I sent (heh, VHS) with my application to want me on their team or at least wanted me to try out, and, of course, it didn’t hurt when the coaches nudged their Admissions Office to give me the thumbs up.

I chose to attend an all-women’s college, which, not surprisingly, promoted feminism and female power—intellectual, societal, political, athletic. (Plus, dude, I wanted a girlfriend, and they are more queer-friendly institutions.) Imagine my amazement, then, when I learned that the girls on the tennis team were required to wear tennis skirts. The field hockey team, a group of women who looked as though they could take on Roman gladiators, also had to wear skirts. I just didn’t understand. It made no sense whatsoever. What was this skirt tyranny all about? (Sorry; that was my own personal little rant there.) I resented not having the option of attire. If a woman wants to wear a skirt to play, then she absolutely should be able to (and, likewise, so should men). On the flip side, however, she should also have the option of wearing shorts. Today, happily, these choices are more accepted. This is good; people should be able to choose what they wear without taboos and prejudice being applied.

Needless to say, I didn’t join the team. I just couldn’t.

The game figured prominently in my youth and young adulthood. I don’t play tennis much anymore, but I do continue to hit tennis balls, mostly against walls. It’s good exercise/therapy after all, and I have to get some use out of all those white shorts.


* These days kids roll the balls rather than throw them…a change that irritates my dad no end (see his blog on Labor Day).