Jumbo Sam Brill gets face to face with Djokovic and Medvedev at US Open

Arthur Ashe Stadium is pictured in September, 2010. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

While watching the U.S. Open finals on Sunday, Sept. 12, many Tufts students may have recognized a familiar face on the court. Junior Sam Brill was frequently caught by ESPN’s cameras standing directly behind Novak Djokovic or Daniil Medvedev, serving as a ball boy for the historic match at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Brill did not simply stumble upon this gig working a match on the biggest stage in tennis was over six years in the making for him.

Born and raised in New York City, Brill grew up going to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center with his family. He had always loved tennis, and the desire to get closer to the action ignited a spark inside of him.

“We would sit pretty close to the action and I, always being in the middle of the rat race in New York City, wanted to find ways to get closer to the action,” Brill said. “Obviously, we were pretty close, but the only people that were consistently closer than us were the ball [persons].”

When Brill was 14, he decided to try out to become a U.S. Open ball boy. A self-described “chubby little 14-year-old,” Brill impressed at tryouts.

“I was throwing lasers across the court and there was nothing they could really do,” he said. “They were like, ‘Wow, where’s this coming from?’ It’s a 14-year-old kid who doesn’t look athletic at all and I was just throwing the ball easily over the umpire’s chair and got called for a callback that year.”

After the callback, Brill got the job. 

The tryouts consisted of running to pick up the ball, picking up the ball and rolling. Brill noted that the people in charge of tryouts want to check coordination, ability to sprint, stop on a dime, pick up the ball, sprint again and then stop again. They also look for general tennis awareness, on which they quiz prospective ball persons. Brill said the staff usually consists of around 400 people, with hundreds more coming to try out each year, so many that there is usually a mile-long line. 

Since landing the job, Brill has had to work his way up the ladder and prove his talents to the U.S. Open bosses. Long before he was assigned to marquee matches, Brill enjoyed his early years working as a ball boy on the smaller courts around the U.S. Open grounds. He noted that, at the U.S. Open, all tennis is good tennis. Just over a week ago, in his sixth year, Brill finally made it onto center court during a finals match.

“Getting in on the action was incredible,” Brill said. “You’re literally so close, like face to face. We literally used to bring them the towels so you are sweat to sweat with greatness, which is an unreal experience … You can kind of see the wheels turning as they get up to crank a serve or even a thinking point, you can feel when a player gets too tense because they’re thinking too much.”

Coming within feet of both Djokovic and Medvedev during the match, Brill recalls one interaction as particularly noteworthy. He said that Djokovic was going for history at this U.S. Open, aiming for 21 Grand Slams to put him above Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Despite having two balls in his hands, he looked at Brill for another. 

“So, he could have theoretically gone to the line, but he sees [a ball] in my left hand and I throw him the one in my right because I’m right-handed,” Brill said. “But, he just stares it down and gets all wide eyed. I can clearly see that I messed up and that he wanted the ball that was in my left hand and there was nothing I could really do about it except throw him the other ball because he wasn’t going to go to the line until he had the ball that he wanted.”

Interactions like this are what tennis enthusiasts dream about, but for Brill, it became his reality. In addition to being close to the players and celebrities that come to watch the matches, Brill said he appreciated the relationship formed between the ball persons and the umpires.

“The umpires are also really nice to us,” Brill said. “When I came off court Sunday, one of them wanted to jersey-swap with me. So, I have an umpire shirt now I have one umpire shirt and one ball boy shirt. He was really funny about it, he was just like, ‘I have a shirt, I want one of yours.’ And I was like, ‘Give me five minutes and I’ll come and trade.’ He thought it was the best thing ever.”

Brill’s journey as a ball boy has been fulfilling, exciting and has culminated in the biggest way one could imagine. Returning on a 3 a.m. train back to Tufts after the match in order to make it to class the next morning, Brill brought with him his two shirts and memories to last him a lifetime.