Behind The Scenes of a Tennis Tournament

By Michael Forte

Professional tennis players are known to be extremely particular about their equipment, and for good reason; the difference between winning and losing can be one poor shot that may be caused by loose strings or a sweaty grip. Typically, stringing a racket at a higher tension will result in relatively less power but more control, and the opposite effect is true for stringing at a lower tension.

Behind the scenes of any professional tennis tournament is a team of professionals – stringers, court workers and ball people who make it all happen. Many of them are volunteers who do it for the love of sport. Dozens were working at The New York Open, which ran February 9-16, 2020, at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, NY.

Julien Klein’s company, Solow Sports LLC, is the official stringing team for the New York Open. Klein estimates that his staff strings somewhere between 400 and 500 rackets during event. His team strings rackets of the players, coaches and hitting partners on site. “The player who has given us the most memorable stringing experience has been Paolo Lorezni,” said Klein. “He uses very unique, delicate strings and is quite meticulous in coming at the same exact time every day to drop off then pick up his rackets.”

Nassau Coliseum, officially known as Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, is an indoor arena that is home to the New York Islanders (National Hockey League). The tournament, which was first held in 2018 to replace the now defunct Memphis Open, is played across two courts, the “Stadium” and “Grandstand,” which are coated in black paint.

The black court is unique to the New York Open. A lot of work goes into making these courts have a good surface, said an operations worker. “The courts are installed, rather than surfaced, over the ice-hockey rink,” he says. “It’s an interesting adjustment for the players in getting used to the unique surface; the paint used has a gritty aspect to it as well.” The grittier the court, the slower the ball bounces.

Some of the top players in the world are competing in the tournament, including John Isner and Milos Raonic. Reilly Opelka, the 2019 New York Open champion, returned this year looking to defend his title. Top players Nick Kyrgios and Kei Nishikori also had entered but pulled out prior to their first match citing injuries.

Though their aim is to go unnoticed, no professional match is complete without the help of the ball people. Around 50 individuals volunteer their time to be a part of this world-class tennis tournament.

“It’s an incredible experience anyway,” one ball person said. “I’m not that upset about not getting paid. I get to be on court with some of the best tennis players in the world, that’s more than enough for me.”

The volunteers not only get balls for the players, but also towels. They keep track of the score and count how many games they have until they must open up new balls. “It’s harder than it looks!” one ball-person explained. “We need 100 percent focus 100 percent of the time.”

Most players are pretty nice, or at least aren’t rude, they say. “Every once and a while a player gets heated or can be mean, but I know it’s not personal, they have a lot of pressure on them,” said one ball person.

“The most exciting part for me was getting to string Noah Rubin’s on-court racket,” Klein admits. Rubin, a Long Island native, is currently in the top 200 players in the world. “I’ve known him since he was eight years old! We were just excited to be a part of his journey.”

Fan attendance has been low. One spectator attributes this to the tournament’s location. The tournament is out in Long Island with not much public transportation, said Kevin, a self-described “tennis fanatic” and former Division III college player. “It’s too bad! We still (have) high level tennis here and for a great price that people aren’t taking advantage of!” The average price for a general admission ticket has been $5; front row seats have sold for about $60.

The tournament concluded in the evening on February 16. Top seeds John Isner and Milos Raonic lost their opening matches, opening up the draw for other players to make a deep run. Defending champion Reilly Opelka made the quarterfinals but lost to qualifier Jason Jung. Andreas Seppi, reaching the eighth final of his career, lost to Kyle Edmund who picked up his second career title out of three finals.

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