-- A tennis ball bears down at 118 mph, and Gary Spitz, cat-quick, ranges to his left, his hand reaching reaching reaching. Got it.
He stops dead, turns and trots back to his chosen spot at the U.S. Open, which is to say against the far wall of the stadium, with the teenage ball boys.
Except you really can't call Spitz a ball boy (personally, he favors ball person). Bounding across the court of the stadium in Flushing Meadows in his tennis shoes and white socks and that spiffy blue-and-white polo-shirt-and-shorts combo, Spitz is in his 26th year of tracking down wayward tennis balls. He's a 41-year-old lawyer from Long Beach and he finds no greater satisfaction than spending two hot and humid weeks retrieving balls and grabbing towels with methodical efficiency.
"I just love being here," says this quiet, intense man with the athletic build, close-cropped hair and glasses. "I like to figure out when players want their balls, I like to figure out when they take their towel, which way they look after the point ends."
Spitz has an upper lip stiff enough to tease a smile from an English butler. His satisfaction comes in a job done so immaculately he becomes invisible.
"If everything goes well, you never know we're there," he says. "The best of us are completely inconspicuous."
Ball people partake of an intricate choreography. Two are stationed at center court, and two at either end. They retrieve balls instantly, never talk and work on their soft one-bounce-never-two tosses. And they endeavor to treat the professional tennis players like the intense, tightly wound athletic royalty that most of them are.
At this day's match, David Nalbandian insisted that Spitz place three balls on his racket before a serve -- his opponent, Alex Bogomolov Jr., wanted two balls. Some players want to sit under an umbrella as they chill between games. Some want to be alone. Andre Agassi absolutely won't hit a serve unless every ball person stands precisely in the usual place. The Williams sisters are famous for their germ-phobias -- they always strip off the aluminum tops on their water bottles.
Whatever. All of this is fine with Spitz, who studies and makes mental notes of the players' every want and need. ("He's like a lawyer with a deposition," another ball person says of Spitz). His favorite player was Monica Seles. She had a transcendent game, she was beautiful and, oh, could she concentrate.
"Seles is very intense." He stares at you without blinking. "I like very intense individuals."
There are 250 ball people, and only 32 are more than 18 years old. (The average profile is more like 16, a star-struck junior on the Great Neck High School tennis team, maybe with a trace of acne.) The midlife people comprise an idiosyncratic fraternity -- Dorian Waring, the oldest, in her forties, works in financial services and television. Dr. Mike is an ER physician from Brooklyn. For a while there was a fifty-something businessman from Arkansas.
"Gary gets the most publicity because he's done 26 consecutive tournaments, but Dorian has done more -- she just took a year or two off during college," says Tina Taps of the United States Tennis Association. "If Dorian and Gary could make a profession of being a ball person, they would do it tomorrow."
Spitz took up this pursuit when he was a high school senior in Valley Stream, Long Island, for no reason he can put a finger on. He was quiet and driven and he saw something he liked on those courts. For the past 11 years he's labored as a lawyer and investigator for Nassau County government, and each year he'd put in for the same two-week stretch spanning Labor Day. He never told anyone why.
"If someone asked, I'd come clean," he says. "But I like to keep a low profile."
He's in private law practice now, a solo practitioner. He's not married, but he imagines the sort of woman who would become his betrothed would understand his need to spend two weeks chasing tennis balls. "I'd sit down and talk about it with her," he says. "She would understand -- I hope."
He works a lot of the U.S. Open's biggest matches in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the premiere players and ball people strut their stuff. But would he ask to work a particular match? Did he beg to work Andy Roddick's first-round match and field those electric 152-mph serves?
Spitz shakes his head. Only young kids ask for matches. The young girls favor the hunkish Jan-Michael Gambill and Mark Philippoussis, and the teenage boys lust for the Valkyrie blondes, like Maria Sharapova. "My boss knows who my favorites players are," he says. "And she knows you need athletic ability to work Arthur Ashe Stadium."
Spitz holds the record for consecutive years worked, and he keeps an eye on those teenagers who talk of overtaking him, a Lou Gehrig ever wary that Cal Ripken Jr. is out there somewhere. Right now there's this kid, Menendez, who makes Spitz nervous. Menendez became a ball boy as an early teen, he runs well and loves the work, and he says he plans to go to college in the New York area so he can work the matches. Spitz did the same thing in college, at SUNY Albany.
"I do the math," Spitz says. "I know he could do it."
"Maybe his arm will go. Maybe he'll gain too much weight."
Taps of the USTA shrugs. Everyone slows down, she says, even Gary and Dorian. "They will know when the end comes."
Maybe so. Spitz's reverence for the game is great. But he talks of bouncing around that court with the teenagers, invisible and methodical, and retirement sounds pretty distant.
"I haven't succumbed to the ravages of time, not really." He offers a tight trace of a smile. "As long as they keep wanting me, I'm coming."