Dozens of New York Junior Tennis & Learning (NYJTL) kids arrived at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center recently to watch the 2014 USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships, hosted by Columbia University. While all of the kids were able to spend time talking with the student-athletes off the court, some also had work to do: Retrieving loose tennis balls during match play.
As ballkids for one of college tennis' most prestigious events, the kids of NYJTL had a bird's eye view on what it takes to compete at the highest level. The purpose of attending the event, according to York Chu, NYJTL's senior tennis program Mmanager, was to inspire.
"They get to see the level of the tennis, and it's something they will aspire to," said Chu. "That's really why they're here."
Saturday's activities began with tours of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center grounds guided by Columbia players, coaches and tournament staff. While last year, the tour included a trek onto center court in Arthur Ashe Stadium, this year cranes towering hundreds of feet overhead were installing the retractable roof that provided limited access into that facility. The massive cranes themselves, however, became part of the attraction.
After the tour, the kids returned to the indoor facility's second-floor viewing area for an autograph session with the nation's best college players.
During the main draw semifinals and championship matches, ballkids lined the corners of the court and the net posts, ready to dive into action when duty called. Several ball kids have previously worked at the U.S. Open, while others enjoyed it for the first time.
"They're good," said Chu of his ballkids. "Some are young, but they're learning. Some of them have been U.S. Open ball kids as well, but it's an exciting time."
Being a ballkid is exciting, but Chu reflected that the skills it requires translate onto the court itself.
"It's just another focus, the same as in tennis when you play," said Chu. "They have to be focused in this job, and hopefully as focused as when they're on the court playing."
NYJTL has an expansive mission dealing with life both on the court and off. It is the largest tennis and education-themed community organization in the country, reaching more than 75,000 New York City kids aged 6-18.
The outstanding tennis ability of the student-athletes playing in the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships was obvious, but even more important was the message they communicated to the NYJTL kids: The importance of succeeding in the classroom, of being a leader both on and off the court, of sportsmanship, and most of all, of having fun playing tennis.