As told to Andrea Atkins, AARP, September 2023
69-Year-Old U.S. Open Ball Boy: ‘Our Demographic Still Has a Lot to Offer." Bob Kass,a semiretired real estate executive, puts his skills to the test
The tryouts for the U.S. Open ball crew are very quick. They watch you for what feels like 2 or 3 minutes. I don’t blame them, though. They try out more than 1,000 people a year for 100 open spots — the whole ball crew is 340 people, but a lot of those are coming back from the previous year.
I’m a tennis player, and I’ve always attended the tournament. A couple of years ago, I got the idea to try out for the crew. I’ve got to hand it to the USTA — a lot of tournaments have upper age limits for their ball crews, but the U.S. Open doesn’t.
My first tryout in 2021, at age 67, was a bust — I didn’t make the cut. But I just said, “OK, I’ll try it again next year.” It never even occurred to me not to go back.
I did want to know what I needed to work on, though, so I reached out to the head of HR and asked why they had rejected me. I like to be very direct. He very kindly offered to set me up with one of their instructors for an hour of training a few weeks before the 2022 tryouts. That guy really put me through my paces. I hadn’t run like that since I was on the track team in high school. But I kept up and learned the basics: getting into position quickly, rolling the ball without bouncing it, passing a ball to a player so subtly that it feels like it just magically appeared in their hand. I had also been training on my own, including going on 2- or 3-mile runs at the hottest part of the day. Doctors don’t advise that, but it did help me prepare for being under the sun.
A week after the 2022 tryouts, I learned I’d made the crew. I was over the moon. But as the tournament got closer, I started wondering, What did I get myself into?
Being a ball person is a lot harder than it looks. Along with your running and ball skills, there are mental demands. You have to know the rules of tennis, keep constant track of the score, know where you’re supposed to be on the court. You’re supposed to be as invisible as possible. You don’t talk to the players on the court — ever.
I must have done OK, though, because I got invited back for this year. It’s exhausting, but I love it.
At the tournament, I’m working with teenagers as young as 14, and people in the crowd call to me, “Way to go!” They want to take my picture and shake my hand. It is very satisfying to keep up with folks so much younger than me.
Sometimes people my age feel dismissed. They get the message that if you’re older, there are things you shouldn’t even try to do. But that’s not true. I want to show people that our demographic still has a lot to offer.
Bob Kass, 69, is a semiretired real estate executive in Port Washington, New York.