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Young and old share a dream: To fetch tennis balls at U.S. Open

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hundreds of people, young and not so young, lined up under rainy skies on Thursday to try out to be U.S. Open ballpersons, a short-term, low paying summer job that can be a dream come true for tennis fans.

A few dozen will be chosen from the competitive tryouts at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to join veteran ballpersons from previous years, and spend three weeks in August and September working at the tennis championship.

Those who are hired find out in early July.

For some, the job is a chance to get behind the scenes at the Open, rub shoulders with pro players or list the job experience on a college application.

Some teens trying out admitted that their parents want them to make money over the summer vacation. And a couple giggled that they wanted the free T-shirt from Ralph Lauren, which sponsors the tryouts.

None of those reasons mattered to Arthur Leinbach, a retired Pennsylvania state trooper whose gray-streaked hair set him apart from the mostly teenage crowd.

"I'm 50 and it's on my bucket list," said Leinbach, who made the trip to the tennis center in New York City's Queens borough from his home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

"Just because you're old doesn't mean you can't stay active and compete with someone half your age - or less than half your age."

Ballpersons must be at least 14 years old. The pay starts at minimum wage.

They need to be quick, with a strong arm to throw a ball the length of a tennis court, said Tina Taps, manager of the ballpersons program for the United States Tennis Association.

"We're really looking for athletes who can adapt quickly," she said.

Confidence helps, too. Some 33,000 people can fill the stands at each session of the tennis championship, and millions watch on television.

"It would be so cool to be on the tennis court with famous tennis players," said Stephanie Seoane, 16, of Queens, adding that to be near her favorite player, Rafael Nadal, "would be like a dream come true."

Also trying out was 44-year-old Laura Ortiz, a U.S. Army veteran wearing a prosthetic leg. She was injured in a hit-and-run car accident in 2008.

"Who doesn't want to do this?" she said.

Altogether, about 275 ballpersons work day and night sessions at the Open, which starts Aug. 25, organizers said.

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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