From the Bench: Estanich Looks to Become First City Resident to be on Court at Tennis' U.S. Open

By Jeff Toquinto on July 02, 2017 from Sports Blog via

To the best of my knowledge, and I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong, no one from Bridgeport has ever been on the actual court itself for a match at the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament.
You know the one?
It’s the biggest of them all in the United States when it comes to professional tennis and is one of the four grand slam events. It’s played at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in the Queens section of New York City. In 2017, the dry spell may come to an end for the City of Bridgeport.
Here’s the deal. The person going won’t be competing on the court. Instead, if all goes as planned 55-year-old lifelong tennis addict Joseph “Joe” Estanich will be one of roughly 80 new ball boys (there are 280 and 200 return each year) on the nearly two dozen courts that sees action at the Open.
Estanich, a Bridgeport resident since 1988, gets the irony of being a ball boy. After all, he’s 55-years-old, and he and his wife Debbie are the parents to a son Alex, 23, and a daughter Emily, 19.
In most cases, Alex would likely be too old to qualify as a ball boy, or ball person as the new term is being floated at most tournaments. Emily might make the cutoff in some.
“Most tournaments, I’m guessing, the cutoff age is probably 18 or maybe 19,” said Estanich. “I’ve watched a lot of tennis and at the U.S. Open you would see an occasional adult in the position; some looking to clearly be in their 50s.
“I got on line and found out the U.S. Open is the only grand slam event that doesn’t have an age maximum,” he continued. “I figured, I’m just going to give this a try.”
And so earlier this week, there were a few pictures (some posted in this blog) of Estanich apparently at the U.S. Open trying out to be a ball boy. My friend Kathryn Johnston let me know about what was going on so as I was looking – and not be being anywhere near the level of tennis fan Estanich is – I wondered whether or not it was Estanich playing a prank.
After all, for any of you Seinfeld fans out there you’re very much aware of the episode where Kramer becomes a ball boy. And as you can imagine it ends in disaster.
So before determining whether or not to have egg on my face if I contacted Estanich and was wrong, I did what he did and went on line. Thanks to Google, there it was. The tryouts were, in fact, legitimate. The real beauty of it is that Estanich, a huge Seinfeld fan like yours truly, knew all about the irony of doing what one of his favorite shows TV characters had already done.
“A lot of my friends and family are Seinfeld fans so when I broached the subject of doing this with them, almost everyone one to a tee told me not to pull a Kramer and run into one of the players,” said Estanich.
If Estanich is lucky enough to be selected, he probably won’t have that happen. Not that it couldn’t, but with his background it’s unlikely.
“I’ve been playing tennis for over 40 years. I’ve probably played in 100 tournaments during that time. I’m still fairly active in the game,” said Estanich.
What’s really unique is that not only is Estanich self-taught at the game, but found a way to draw interest from colleges. Estanich went to Gilmer County High School, which did not offer tennis.
“I was offered, I guess they would be described as partial scholarships, from Fairmont State, the University of Charleston and Baker University (in Kansas),” said Estanich. “I was noticed because I played in tournaments throughout the state while in high school and the coaches at Charleston and Fairmont both played in the same tournaments. That’s where they saw me and why I was offered.”
Instead of going to those schools, Estanich headed to Morgantown. He walked on to West Virginia University’s program.
“I played my freshman year. I wasn’t a starter and I think I played in one match," said Estanich, who was a walk-on.”
That freshman year would be the beginning and the end, but he's not bitter about it. He said the team continued to recruit better and better players, and Estanich said "I simply wasn't good enough."
His love for tennis didn’t end after that one year or at the end of college. From then until today, he continues to play for the love of the game. And he hopes that love has him working at the U.S. Open.
“I just showed up for registration (earlier this week) at the U.S. Open complex right in New York at 3 p.m. and the tryouts started at 4 p.m.,” said Estanich, who said several hundred were there for the tryouts. “It was as simple as that.”
Estanich said you can try out for the net position or the baseline position – or both. The net position is pretty basic that when the ball goes into the net you run across and get the ball. The baseline position is a bit more difficult and involves throwing the ball across the court – between 90 and 100 feet in the air and have it bounce one time to the person receiving it.
“That sounds easy, but a tennis ball is light so it’s not as easy to throw that distance accurate every single time,” said Estanich, who opted to try out for both positions.
During the tryouts, the net position simply involved an individual hitting the ball into the net, gathering it and going to the other side. The baseline position involved throwing it and getting the solo bounce.
“They actually had a score sheet,” said Estanich.
The net side grade was based on agility, hands and how you scooped up the ball, he said. The baseline was graded on distance on throw and accuracy and how the throw went – high or straighter.
“I had 12 throws down the line throws and 12 diagonal or cross court throws. Every throw was accurate; maybe two or three that bounced a more than once,” said Estanich. “I got 80 to 90 percent of my throws where and how I wanted.”
He 100 percent wants to be at the U.S. Open from August 28 to Sept. 10. He’ll be there every day if selected and they ask him to be there for every day.
“It’s a two-week long tournament and I’ve got vacation time available if they need me,” said Estanich, who said if he qualifies he'd have to be there for three weeks, which includes the qualifying portion of the event.
If he goes, it will be his first appearance at a U.S. Open in any capacity. While he’s an avid player and watches regularly, he’s only been to a few tournaments – none of which are a major. He did, as a teenager see legends such as John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and the late Arthur Ashe compete in Washington, D.C.
Connors and McEnroe may hook it up on the senior circuit, and if Estanich get the call he’ll be on the senior ball boy circuit. And he may not be alone.
Estanich said he saw one participant older than him. He even met another man he said in his own age bracket that he warmed up with.
“When I was there I saw about a half dozen people from probably 40 years of age to 60,” said Estanich. “If I make it will be wonderful. If not, it’s already been a great experience and I’ll consider trying out next year.”
Here's the good news. On Friday, Estanich got a call back. That doesn't mean that he's in, but it does mean he's among the finalists now. On July 11, he'll return for the next round. He doesn’t know if he’ll make it or not from there, but there’s one thing he does know.
“I’ve let my family know that Kramer won’t be there with me,” Estanich said with a laugh.
Considering he's already beat out plenty of people to make it to the next round, Estanich has the next  laugh. If he makes it, he'll also have the last one.
Stay tuned.
Editor's Note: Top photo shows where Joe Estanich lined up for his tryout, while next to last photo shows the site of the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament. Middle two photos show Estanich at his tryout. At the bottom is a screen shot of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer is a ball boy.

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