There are very few occupations where having your yarmulke fall off could cost you your job. But that was definitely on the mind of Donny Steinberg, a 16-year-old who decided to try out as a ball boy with the hopes of making it to the U.S Open. He made the cut, and the rookie is excited. So far, his blond hair and yarmulke have stayed in place.
“You definitely don’t want any sudden movement or anything that would interrupt a point or distract a player,” said Steinberg, who attends David Renhov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys in Woodmere, L.I. “Someone asked me how I keep my kipa on, and if it’s magic. I told them it was just four bobby pins.”
Steinberg originally thought that getting the job required connections to the United States Tennis Association, but he learned about the regular tryout. After about five hours of waiting, he had 90 seconds to show he could throw the tennis ball across the court on a bounce, run quickly and show a positive attitude. A second tryout had about 20 minutes of evaluation, and then he had to prove himself in the qualifying rounds prior to the beginning of the U.S. Open, which is now in its second week.
Yitz Liberman, who is in his fourth year as a ball boy at the U.S. Open, thought people would notice if his yarmulke fell off during a match. So he didn’t initially wear one, instead opting for a hat. But one day, he couldn’t locate a hat quickly, decided to go for a yarmulke and it’s stayed on ever since.
The 30-year-old Yeshiva University graduate said that he has semicha (rabbinic ordination) and also works at the Jewish Home for The Aged in Fairfield, Conn. He is sometimes a crew chief as the ball boy who gives advice to the rookies.
On the first day of the U.S Open, on Court 10, he told the crew to make sure their cell phones were off and to make sure they hydrated. Soon, he was drenched in sweat under the hot sun, as he had to run to give a player a towel more than 20 times in a span of about 15 minutes without using the towel for himself.
“You gotta have alacrity, hustle and respect,” he said. “I tell them to be prepared but don’t over-think.”
Liberman has worked on matches with top players, including Rafael Nadal. He said being a ball boy is an honor and a privilege he takes seriously.
“The USTA is a great organization to work for,” Liberman said. “It’s a great example of how to treat people. There is diversity, and they nurture you to improve. And of course you get to be on the court with some of the best athletes in the world.”
Liberman said he’s used to working major matches at Arthur Ashe Stadium and being on television.
“It’s very cool to be on TV,” he said. “Of course, you get a little more excited. But you should have the same intensity whether you are on TV or not and whether or not you are in front of a huge crowd or a small one.”
Steinberg said that there are a number of rules that ball persons must follow, even if they are difficult. Working the qualifying match where Israeli player Julia Glushko played, he wondered if she noticed his yarmulke. But he said, while working and in uniform, he isn’t allowed to talk to the players socially. Another hard rule?
“There was one amazing shot that a player made, and I was about to clap,” he said. “But obviously, you’re not allowed to do that, and you can’t root for a player. There was another time when a shot was out, and a player asked me if the shot was out. Of course you can’t say anything.”
He said he was also happy to work the doubles match of Israeli Shahar Peer on Thursday. Steinberg and Liberman were interviewed at the food court on a break from their matches, joined by some of their fellow Jewish ball boys. Kevin Alter, 18, and Seth Schlussel 17, of Englewood, N.J., both explained that there is camaraderie among some observant ball boys they like to call the “Jew-crew.” Alter grabbed a hot dog from the kosher stand after working a three-set victory by American Jack Sock on Court 17. Kevin Hakimi, 21 of Great Neck, said he loves the job and it’s important to know player tendencies.
“Andy Roddick likes to use the towel a lot,” he said.
While those three have worked the U.S Open before, it’s the first time as a ball girl for Rebecca Gellis. She doesn’t think about yarmulkes, just about speed. Her job is to run across the court and pick up the ball when a player faults on their serve. Does she get nervous?
“A little, but I had a lot of practice with my father,” she said. “He hit it into the net, and I would run and get it.”
Gellis and Steinberg are two of 75 rookies who made the cut from 500 people who tried out, said Tina Tapps, director of ball persons for the U.S Open. Tapps said yarmulkes are not a problem.
“As long as they can secure it, it’s fine,” she said in a phone interview. “We are happy to give an opportunity to people of all religions and races, and as long as the person can do the job, everything’s good.”