Think it’s possible to walk into the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center off the street, pick up a racket, head out to Arthur Ashe Stadium and start hitting balls in one of the world’s most famous sports venues?
Ask Frank Thompson.
He did it last week.
The Blacksburg High School junior spent five days at the U.S. Open in New York, serving as a practice partner for men’s and women’s competitors in the Grand Slam Event.
Thompson hit balls with former Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniaki.
He got to watch men’s world No. 1 Novak Djokovic play a singles match.
He took a selfie with Roger Federer.
Not a bad way to spend a week while his classmates were doing readin’, writin’ and ’rithmatic.
Thompson got the gig courtesy of his sister, Sophia, a women’s soccer player at Virginia Tech.
Big sis once had a part-time job with the USTA and was invited this year to help coordinate the practice schedule for the pros at the Open.
The pros needed practice fodder.
She knew just the right person.
Thompson has enough game to give a pro a good workout.
The two-time reigning VHSL Class 4 singles champion reached the Round of 16 at the USTA boys national 16-under championships in August.
Two weeks ago, he and partner Thomas Paulsell of Seattle, won the USTA 16-under National Doubles title in Orlando, Florida, their second national championship of the year.
Hours after winning the tournament in Orlando, Thompson and Paulsell faced some questions:
Are we going to New York?
Where will we stay?
What about school?
Is this really happening?
“So many different issues,” Thompson said. “We decided to come like two hours before we boarded the plane.
“I texted my teachers, and they seemed very supportive.”
Thompson brought his Blacksburg High textbooks, but they stayed closed most of the time.
“They’re in the room,” he said last week. “But I’ve been here 6 a.m. to, when did I leave last night, 10:45? School’s been a struggle.”
At least Thompson got some lessons in spelling and world geography.
He got to practice with No. 17 men’s seed Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia (the country, not the state).
He traded groundstrokes for 90 minutes one day with Wozniaki, the former No. 1-ranked women’s player in the world from Denmark.
And how’s this for a thrill?
He had a 9 a.m. session one day with India’s top-ranked player — Prajnesh Gunneswaran — on the same Arthur Ashe Stadium court when the men’s and women’s finals will be contested this weekend.
“It’s the biggest tennis stadium in the world,” Thompson said. “It was pretty cool.”
Thompson said the women’s players and their coaches are particular about what they want from their practice partners.
“The guys just want to hit,” he said. “They all asked me how old I was. They were probably a little surprised. It’s an odd group of people that are doing this, former college players, local people.”
With an average of four practice sessions per day and an ever-changing schedule, Thompson said there was no time for sightseeing in the Big Apple.
“Nope, practice courts and back to the hotel,” he said.
While the pros are winding up the 2019 Grand Slam season, Thompson will move up to the 18-under level next year.
Adding a second “gold ball’ for a national title wasn’t easy. He and Paulsell won in three sets in the quarterfinals in Orlando, stretching their career record together in tie-breaks to 17-0.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “When we get to the breaker, there’s a little switch that flips on. My partner decides to never miss from the baseline and I usually serve pretty well and volley OK.
“We run our same little play and it usually works out.”
Thompson is still on cloud nine after getting to work out for a week with pros, a level he can dream about achieving.
“It was very motivating, humbling,” Thompson said. “But also it means maybe it’s not as far away as you might think. It’s a long journey, but it’s definitely possible.”