Kids standing with giant tennis balls and sharpies by the President’s Gate start screaming, and 24-year-old Angelo Anderson cranes his neck to see who’s causing the commotion.
“Oh, it’s Rafael Nadal,” he says, a smile creeping onto his face, his eyes following the 12-time Grand Slam champion as he steps off the practice courts and moves down the line to sign autographs. The cheering escalates to a deafening Ra-Fa, Ra-Fa, and the on-camera interview with USOpen.org has to be placed on hold. But Anderson never loses his grin or his focus on Nadal.
It’s not every day you see a Navy Corpsman wide-eyed and awestruck, but that’s been Anderson’s general demeanor for the past two weeks as a US Open ballperson.
“This is the biggest competition in tennis and it’s my first introduction to it," Anderson said of his first time working the US Open. "It’s been phenomenal.”
At this time three years ago, Anderson wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to walk on his own or use his right arm again, let alone sprint to balls at the net and toss them cross-court as part of the staff of US Open ballpersons.
On July 2, 2010, Anderson, originally from Atlanta, was out with U.S. Marines on an ordinary military mission in Helmand Province in Afghanistan when two bullets from an AK-47 ripped through his right arm and leg, shattering his femur and humerus bones. He couldn’t stand, he couldn’t move either limb. All he could do was wait.
After half an hour – once combat fire had subsided – Marines were able to evacuate him by helicopter. He eventually was transferred to a stateside hospital where his lengthy rehabilitation process began.
“I was just taking each day by its hour, minute and second,” he said. “I don’t want to sound selfish, but I was just trying to focus on healing myself. Healing my mind, healing my body. Not being negative, just letting medicine and time take its course.”
After several surgeries to place titanium rods and plates in his leg and arm, and months of rehab later, Anderson began tentatively taking steps. He kept working at his recovery until eventually he was able to participate in the Warrior Games, the annual competition for wounded, ill and injured service members from the armed forces. It was through his participation in that event he learned about working as a ballperson for the US Open.
“I have really little to no limitations out on the court now,” Anderson said. “The only thing is that I’m sore, and that’s to be expected, especially after eight, nine, 10-hour days of being on court.”
Dotting Anderson’s shoulder and bicep are elevated scars and on his thigh are deep tissue scars and skin grafts from his injuries and surgeries, but they are nearly completely hidden by his ballperson uniform. Most people, including the rest of the ballperson crew, would have no idea that he was any different from the rest of the young men and women out on the courts. For Anderson, that’s a good thing.
“My mission was just to blend in with them so they’ll know that I’m here to have fun with them, that way my story doesn’t intimidate them or scare them off,” he said. “I’m more concerned about what they know so I can do better on the court.”
Aside from the protocol of how to move about the court to retrieve balls as a ballperson at net, he’s learning to pick up on the subtleties of communication between members of the crew on court. The eye contact, the body language. How to stay relatively motionless, but be alert and aware. Of course, as a member of the armed forces, that comes naturally to him.
“For me, with my military mindset, [staying motionless] meant looking straight ahead, distant stare, 500 yards out,” he says and laughs. “But eventually I figured out, you can move your head to look at the ball, it’s not going to distract the player. If anything, standing there motionless, they’re probably going to think, ‘What’s wrong with this guy? Is he OK?’”
Anderson has taken to his new role naturally and has loved every second of his time at the Open, absorbing his time around the top players in the game and taking in the spectacle of it all. And though the moments watching players and interacting with the other ballpersons are special, his favorite moment at the tournament had nothing to do with his on-court time.
“Uniform day was my favorite day; that’s when you know you’re official. After all the interviews and the administrative stuff they tell us, ‘Tomorrow you guys are going to wear this uniform and you’re official now.’ Like, yes!,” Anderson laughed, throwing in a fist pump for good measure.
For a man who has been through so much, the three weeks of levity as a member of a different type of corps has been a totally new and wonderful dose of medicine.