‘I don’t take anything anyone says personally’: Inside the most thankless job of the US Open

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NEW YORK — Ben Shapiro’s phone won’t stop buzzing.

As a coordinator for professional tennis operations for the USTA and one of three people leading the US Open’s practice-court scheduling, he can’t go more than a few minutes — seconds sometimes — without a player or a coach reaching out. Phone calls, texts, WhatsApp messages. Everyone is looking to secure a practice time, or complain about the one they already have. One unhappy coach called him four times within a minute.

“Anytime I try and run and eat something, or even just quickly go to the bathroom, I miss so much,” Shapiro said. “It’s constant, 24/7. I go to bed and we’re still going, and I wake up and I’ve missed so many [calls and messages].”

On Sunday, the day before the main draw is slated to begin at the US Open, the requests are never-ending.

With an office and scheduling desk located in the players’ area inside of Arthur Ashe Stadium, there is a palpable combination of optimism and nervous energy as the first round approaches. Players and their coaches rush around with their rackets and laundry bags, making last-minute preparations.

Amid the chaos, four employees sit behind their computers and calmly assist the steady stream of players and their coaches with booking practice courts or picking up balls for their session that day. In theory, it sounds simple enough — find out when a player wants to practice and put them on the schedule — however, it’s anything but.

What the players and coaches don’t see: the complicated spreadsheet, complete with color codes and symbols, which contains the practice-court schedule for 256 players — every single one in the main draw. Aside from the sheer number of people, every person has specific wants and needs, and there are only a finite amount of courts. There are 17 practice courts, five directly on the grounds and 12 in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and three indoor practice courts, as well as courts available for use at nearby Randall’s Island.

“It’s a very intricate puzzle,” Shapiro said. “And every booking that we put in there, there’s then five domino effects that might happen that we have to think about. So it’s almost like playing chess.”

If a top player wants to make a last-minute change, or if someone gets stuck in traffic, or if someone just doesn’t read their time correctly, everything can get upended. Shapiro, who leads the operation with Joshua Bramblett and Haley Wallace, will often be the one who has to smooth things over.

“This job requires a lot of relationship-building,” Shapiro said. “[The coaches and players] have to trust you’re doing your best, and know you’re trying, and I have thick skin. I don’t take anything anyone says personally. I get it. I know this is a stressful environment.”

On a day like Sunday when there are no matches, the job is slightly easier, because all of the match courts are available to use. Still, almost every player would like to practice on Arthur Ashe Stadium. It’s ultimately reserved for the biggest names — Iga Swiatek and Novak Djokovic were some of those who were assigned the court that day. While most understand that, especially with thousands of fans on site simply to view practices, some coaches vent about their players not getting the opportunity.

While the team can’t schedule every player on the large show courts, they do their best to determine what matters most to a player. Is it the time of the practice? Since practice slots are only 30 minutes, is it the opportunity to get back-to-back sessions? Or is the specific court the most important aspect?

“We really try to give players options and find a decent compromise,” Bramblett, a manager for national events for the USTA, said. “If they’re willing to go to our offsite facility at Randall’s Island, we lighten the restrictions on those courts to try to incentivize people to go over there. For example, if someone wants a court here at 10 a.m. and we can’t get them on a court here until after 2 p.m., and they might get stuck sharing a court with three other people at that point, we’ll give them two hours over [at Randall’s Island] at 10 a.m., by themselves and we help coordinate with the transportation desk. If they can meet us halfway like that, we really will give them whatever they want.”

At the early stages of the event, in which there are literally hundreds of players, everyone is encouraged to practice with another player and they can sign up jointly. Most are fine with this. But every now and then, some people get creative in ways of avoiding that.

“Some will say they’re injured and need to play with their coach as it wouldn’t be fair to the other player, but other times they will give a fake name or of a player who’s not here,” Shapiro said. “I booked a court the other day for a player and someone who was still playing at the [ATP] tournament in Winston-Salem. They know the system and we really do just want to get everyone out there on a court, so we booked it.

The team tries to make sure every player knows, via the specific mobile app for players, the night before by 10 when and where they are scheduled to practice, but they say nothing is ever guaranteed until that player actually steps on the court. There are simply too many variables.

And if inclement weather happens, well, that wreaks havoc on everything. There was rain during qualifying week, which pushed everything back a day. The staff was left scrambling trying to find courts for everyone Saturday as qualifying concluded and main draw players were desperate for practice time.

It’s largely a thankless job. The practice schedule is often a common complaint among players, and the group is more than aware of their frustrations. The staff doesn’t leave the building until the last player has gone.

“There are over 200 players all here at the same time today, that all want an hour and a court to themselves,” Bramblett said. “It’s just not doable and that’s tough. But what we can do is try and find the best solutions and I think that’s the ultimate thing. We want everyone to perform as well as possible and we try as hard as we can to give them what they want and do whatever we can to help with that.”

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