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Charleston siblings laugh their way to 'senior ball crew' status

April 13, 2015 04:52 PM

Jonathon Braden
USTA South Carolina

DANIEL ISLAND, S.C. – About six years ago, Jake, Luke and Ava Kusmider were like most of the 140-person ball crew that works the Family Circle Cup.

They were kids away from school enjoying a week of sunshine and tennis.

But, unlike most ball crew members, the Kusmider children of Charleston kept returning to volunteer.

Last week during the Family Circle Cup, the Kusmider kids marked their sixth consecutive year of chasing balls on court and escorting the world’s best tennis players to their chairs before matches.

Such a volunteer tenure is not unheard of, said Danny Hayes, the co-coordinator of the ball crew. But for all three siblings to help out for six years in a row is extremely rare, he said.

Yet there they were last week, Jake and Luke, twin 16-year-olds, standing across from each other at the net, rolling balls to their baseline crew members and making sure players had Gatorades during changeovers. Earlier in the day, their younger sister, Ava, 14, grinned as she escorted American Nicole Gibbs to her chair on stadium court.

"We have so much fun," Ava Kusmider said.

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Ava Kusmider, right, walks American Nicole Gibbs onto Billie Jean King Stadium Court during the 2015 Family Circle Cup, (USTA SC photo)


The tournament’s “senior ball crew members” return every year because they enjoy it more than most.

All three siblings play tennis at least once a week and have for the past six years. Working the tournament also lets them hang out and have fun with friends they’ve made over the years.

The Kusmiders also have what most teenagers’ lack: a flexible schedule. Their mother, Pam Kusmider, home-schools the kids at the family’s Charleston home and consults them before setting their yearly schedule. “Whenever ball crew is is their spring break,” Pam Kusmider said.

The Kusmiders are also very good at what they do. Being a ball boy or ball girl might seem easy – run and grab ball, return to spot, run and grab ball – but it requires paying close attention and understanding each player’s nuances, Hayes said.

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Hayes

The crew’s performance also makes a difference to the players, who are competing for thousands of dollars in prize money and even more valuable ranking points.

For instance, some players, including world No. 18 Jelena Jankovic, like to receive all the balls from one baseline corner, no matter if they’re serving from the ad or deuce side.

A good ball crew leader will make sure at least four balls are in that corner during the player’s service game, Hayes said.

Such details and habits are never shared by the player, he said. “A ball crew has to pick up on that, and a good ball crew will after one point,” he said. “The Kusmiders would figure that out.”

If a ball crew does not do their job well, they risk becoming the object of a player’s scorn, which happened a few years ago at the Family Circle Cup to a girl who didn’t toss a ball to a player's liking.

“The ball kids have to have some thick skin,” Hayes said.

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Jake, left, and Luke Kusmider work a match at the Althea Gibson Club Court during the 2015 Family Circle Cup. (USTA SC photo.)


The Kusmiders have avoided such blunders, but they have created other memories.

There was the time during the 2011 doubles final when Jake’s leg seized after he sprinted into a net post. A WTA official had to carry him off the court. “Are you OK?,” asked American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who was competing in the match and standing over Jake.

“It’s like the funniest story around here on ball crew,” Jake Kusmider said as he sat next to his siblings last week during a break from matches.

All three kids also were on court when Venus and Serena Williams played each other during the 2013 Family Circle Cup.

Historic matchup or not, the Kusmider kids have enjoyed almost every minute of ball crew, ever since they participated in a two-hour Saturday morning training in January 2010.

The earlier days, however, were not as fun for their mother.

She would drop off her two 11-year-old sons and 9-year-old daughter at 7 in the morning and remind them to stick together. She spent the remainder of the day working her other job and worrying about her kids.

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Jake Kusmider watches play last week during the Family Circle Cup. (USTA SC photo)


Some days, she wouldn’t hear anything from them until 10 or 12 hours later.

“It was really, really scary, the idea of them just being on their own,” Kusmider said. “(Family Circle Tennis Center) is a huge place.”

As the three have grown older, though, Mom’s stress has reduced. Now the kids’ volunteering mostly makes her laugh.

“I keep thinking each year they’re going to grow out of it,” she said. “It’s funny but in a good way. I appreciate their work ethic and how serious they take it.”

The kids’ experience also has changed since they started.

To Ava, the Family Circle Tennis Center doesn’t seem as big as it did when she was 9. Jake and Luke, 16-year-old boys, are a little more interested in watching certain female tennis players, such as Eugenie Bouchard, than they were years ago.

But mostly, the siblings say, the tournament continues to be the week of fun it has always been for them and their friends. It is a week away from school and a week of being feet away from some of the best tennis players in the world.

Or, as Jake Kusmider put it, “Just awesome.”

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The Kusmiders, Ava, second from right, and Luke and Jake, fourth and fifth from the right, wait for a player to come through the Billie Jean King Stadium Court hallway last week. (USTA SC photo)
 

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