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Courting the biggest stars.

Byline: Shaun Sutner

COLUMN: TENNIS

As a fan, Aneeka Kalia has watched Serena and Venus Williams bash tennis balls at high velocity in the grandeur of Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open in New York.

Now Aneeka, a 17-year-old from Southboro and a standout on the tennis team at Notre Dame Academy in Worcester, is about to face those Williams-swat fuzzy yellow balls up close - really close.

She is one of 20 ball boys and girls from Central Massachusetts recruited by the USTA to work the Fed Cup matches between the U.S. and Belarus on Saturday and Sunday at Worcester's DCU Center - a marquee team battle at the highest level of women's pro tennis.

The Fed Cup, the women's equivalent of the men's Davis Cup, is contested by four-woman teams. This weekend's "tie" is the first round of World Group II.

In today's parlance, they are "ball kids," even though most are teenagers. They are at the heart of every great pro tennis tourney, working in sync with players and officials to pull off a smoothly run match by sweeping the court of balls and furnishing them on time to players.

What they do takes not only nerve, to snare a 130-mph serve from Venus Williams on the first bounce, but also athletic skill, to catch and throw under pressure, and court judgment honed from years of their own tournament and match play.

For Aneeka, an aspiring college tennis player, it is the chance of a lifetime to be on the same court with two of the game's all-time greats. The Williams sisters will joust with, among other Belarusians, Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, making the Fed Cup a can't-miss event for tennis fans, even on Super Bowl weekend.

"I'm really excited about it. Serena and Venus Williams - it's awesome!" Aneeka said. "I've only seen them play from the stands. Now, I'll really get a different perspective.

"I'm going to try to catch those balls," she added. "That should be really interesting."

One of the key people behind the Central Mass. youth tennis movement is Worcester Tennis Club head pro Bob Greene, a veteran coach and USTA official.

It was Greene and Greendale YMCA tennis director Pete Kolifrath who rounded up the ball kids, a diverse group of youngsters aged 13 to 17 from Worcester and its suburbs, most of them tennis competitors.

Greene is also the USTA's local liaison for the Fed Cup Worcester matches. He has lined up some 100 adult volunteers from tennis clubs in this area and as far away as Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Mostly good club players like Steve and Kim McCrohon of the Worcester Tennis Club, the volunteers will drive players, staff media tables and hospitality suites, and generally make this event - which will be televised live worldwide on the Tennis Channel - run.

Meanwhile, the ball kids have logged three Friday evening practices at the Greendale YMCA in north Worcester, and have one more planned for this Friday before the big show. While only a few have worked big matches before, all have become adept under the tutelage of expert USTA trainers.

"It's really a big thrill for them," Greene said.

Joining Aneeka and her comrades are plenty of other area youngsters, including 50 or so "flag kids" who will participate in Saturday morning's opening ceremony.

The youthful flag bearers, who will hoist the colors of all the Fed Cup nations, come from all corners of the region's tennis community, including Tenacity, the Boston and Worcester inner-city tennis and literacy program; the Jewish Community Center, and Girls Inc.

On Wednesday, the USTA will host about 600 Worcester public school students for two hours of free tennis clinics at the DCU Center with the Fed Cup athletes and area college players. Each youngster will walk away with a junior tennis racket and a tennis ball - a good deal for them and their families and a savvy marketing ploy by the USTA.

"We want to introduce these kids to tennis and hopefully they'll keep playing," said Greene, who coaches some of the city's top juniors at the WTC. "When spring comes, hopefully they'll take their racket and ball out and start hitting against a wall, like we did when we were kids."

Brett Marshall, the USTA's New England community relations manager, has supervised most of the ball-kid training sessions.

Marshall, who helped run the Newport, R.I. pro tournament for many years, is experienced in managing a court. He said the Worcester-area ball kids have the gumption and expertise to shine at the Fed Cup.

"Knowledge of the game, awareness of the court, and where play is happening is huge. Teamwork is huge," he said.

Six ball kids work the court, two at each baseline and two at the net.

"The kids are constantly moving, bouncing around," Marshall said. "They're all really good. They picked it up really quick."

Shaun Sutner can be contacted by email at ssutner@telegram.com.

Fed Cup World Group II

Who: United States vs. Belarus.

Where: DCU Center.

Saturday: Two singles, 1 p.m.

Saturday: Two singles, doubles, noon.

United States roster: Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Christina McHale, Liezel Huber.*

Belarus roster: Victoria Azarenka, Anastasia Yakimova, Olga Govortsova, Darya Kustova.*

TV: Tennis Channel.

Tickets: $61-$226 (both days).

* Rosters subject to change.

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: Aneeka Kalia of Notre Dame Academy and Wes Arnold of St. John's learn to become "ball kids" during a clinic at the Westboro Tennis Club. They will put their new skills to the test during the Fed Cup matches between the United States and Belarus at the DCU Center.

PHOTOG: T&G Staff/STEVE LANAVA
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:4EXBE
Date:Jan 29, 2012
Words:943
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