The stands were packed and the atmosphere was charged as John Niswander and his team emerged onto the court at William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Stadium in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 3.
Top-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas was playing Nick Kygrios in the men's singles semifinals at the Citi Open, and Niswander's ball boy team started its shift with the match hanging in the balance.
“It was back and forth the whole way,” said Niswander, a captain of a ball boy team who has volunteered as the tournament for the last decade. “My team actually came on when it was 6-5, the last official changeover in a tennis match, and I was able to be on court for that third-set tiebreaker.
“Kyrgios won, saved a match point. Those are the moments we live for. You don't really get to pick your shifts. It's wherever the schedule falls that day. You don't get a request, it's really all chance. But our team came on at 6-5 in the third set. It was a packed house, night stadium, prime time. Those are the moments you remember.”
In 10 years of volunteering at the tournament, there have been plenty of moments to remember for Niswander, a Northern High School graduate who played tennis at the school and more recently has worked as a sports reporter in Southern Maryland for the last year. But this year's tournament ended with another sure-to-be highlight, as after working his fourth straight men's singles final he was honored as the tournament's ball boy of the year.
“John was chosen because he's an incredible teacher and leader who's dedicated a decade to this tournament,” said Joey Ramsey, a chairperson at the tournament who is also a Northern graduate. “He makes everyone he works with better, especially our rookies who consistently mention him as one of their favorite captains.”
It was a more-than-satisfying conclusion to this year's tournament for Niswander.
“It was super-cool to be recognized,” he said. “There are a lot of deserving ball kids they could have given the award to. It's nice to know when you put in all that work and time over the last 10 years that people see that and reward you. I've learned from so many of the other captains when I was kind of coming up that have involved with the Citi Open a lot longer. To be an equal to them, to be a captain alongside them and then work finals with them over the years and then get rewarded is super-cool. I wasn't expecting it, to be honest.”
Niswander is oozing with experience, having served as a ball boy for 10 years, but every year new volunteers come to try out to try to earn a spot alongside the returning veterans to work the tournament. The ball boys are then graded as the tournament progresses and slowly whittled away as the field shrinks. Cuts start at the tournament's midpoint and continue until the final day when just 30 work championship Sunday.
“Each night they send us an email with what they noticed, what we could improve on, what they saw that everyone did well, some notes for the next day,” Niswander said . “They include in the email all who are invited back for the next day. ... It gets intense, especially later in the week. Some ball kids are coming from work or are out of town. So if you know a veteran isn't available, that opens up a spot. We kind of call it cutting yourself. So there is always opportunity for the people that have put in the time to get rewarded, which is kind of cool. It's also kind of nice to know that the longer you stay with the program and the longer you've been a ball kid the more likely you are to earn your spot on finals Sunday.”
The work days are long for the volunteers, generally in the vicinity of 12 hours. Ball kids are required to arrive 90 minutes before the first scheduled match each day, which with a start time of 1 p.m. for this year's tournament meant 11:30 a.m. The group would meet with the chairpeople 30 minutes before matches start to go over notes from the prior day and anything else that needs to be addressed and then they head to the courts.
“Typically you work one hour on and one hour off, so you typically work the odd hours, could get a 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and sometimes 11 p.m. shift, or you work the 2, 4, 6, 8, 10,” Niswander said. “You usually get five to six shifts a day during the week. Even qualifying weekend I still probably got at least three. During the heart of the tournament when there are the most matches and courts, typically about five or six. Obviously when you get to Thursday, Friday and it's winding down you get less, maybe three to four.
“In years past we haven't left until 2 or 3 a.m. with rain delays and sometimes matches going long. This year since they bumped the start time up to 1 p.m. it kind of kept the schedule flowing to avoid those late nights. ... I think the latest I left was 12:30 one night, but typically we were out of there by about 11 each night.”
Fun times being on the same court as top players
Through the years, Niswander has kept track of all the players he was been on the court for, a healthy list after 10 years that keeps growing.
“I got a couple new players,” said of this year's tournament. “I keep a list of the all the players I've ever ball boyed for. Every day at the tournament I would grab an order of play and at the end I circle all the matches I got to work. It's always cool at the end of the tournament to put that into my document. It's kind of my encyclopedia of all these players that I've gotten and how many times. This year, three of the four men's semifinalists I'd never ball boyed until this year's tournament, which is always kind of cool to add new players to the list.”
He also worked some of the women's doubles final, which saw Coco Gauff and Catherine McNally win the championship. For Gauff, a 15-year-old who arrived on the international stage in a big way with a win over Venus Williams at Wimbledon earlier this summer, it was the first championship of her professional career.
“My team was on the start of her doubles final. That was a packed house,” Niswander said. “They had to turn people away. They had to stop letting people in because the bleachers were just packed. They needed Stadium [court] to be ready for the men's matches for the night session, so they had to put that match on the outer court and it was just packed. ... That was cool to get her because I think she's going to be one of the stars of the future for the sport.
“She ended up winning the title, too. ... That's pretty cool to be able to say I was a ball boy on her court when she won her first WTA title of any kind.”
Niswander also got to see plenty of Kyrgios, who has the reputation of being something of a challenge.
“He's a character,” Niswander said. “He's always in the headlines. One of our chairpeople described Kyrgios as the final exam for ball boys. He always changes up his routines and which side he takes the towel to, so you always have to be on your toes.
“I was able to get five of his seven matches at this year's tournament, which was cool because he's a challenge even for somebody like myself who's been doing it for 10 years. When I'm at the back, which is like the spot I always work, I pretty much know what's going to happen without thinking about it, but the only time I was really nervous at this year's tournament was my first Kyrgios match just because you never know if you're going to be the one who sets him off. Is he going to get mad you didn't get him the towel right away, or are you going to miss him signaling something? That was the only time recently I can remember getting butterflies before I went out on the court, to do Nick Kyrgios' matches.”
Ultimately, though, the tournament feels a bit like a reunion that Niswander attends every year.
“It's definitely a family feel at that tournament, which is why I think everybody always comes back,” he said. “They have such high numbers of veterans that return. The tennis is always nice, but you can watch that on TV or just go as a spectator. The people that you work with really become your family. You spend so much time with them, even if it's just one week out of the year.”