The Little Ballgirl Who Could

With the U.S. Open tennis tournament in full swing my heart is always gladdened by my favorite tennis story of all time, which involves my sister.

No, not that one! My other sister, Gina.

When she was a teenager she worked as a ballgirl at the U.S. Open, and she was usually stationed at the net -- feet apart, hands behind her back, a deadpan expression on her face at all times.


Check out the picture from the U.S. Open at Forest Hills, circa 1976. Gina looks a bit like a mob wife -- beautiful and brave, and not about to spill her guts no matter how hard the feds leaned on her.

She was a damn good ballgirl, lasting to the finals more than once, but this particular story didn't happen at the Open -- it happened at the Masters tournament in Madison Square Garden, where John McEnroe was gunning for the championship.

McEnroe had won the French Open Mixed Doubles title with my sister Mary the summer before and then wowed the world at Wimbledon, roaring into the semifinals as an unseeded 18-year-old. Limitless fame and fortune were in his future.

Gina, then 16, was chasing tennis balls for minimum wage, and the only thing in her immediate future -- after ball-girling this match -- was her homework.

McEnroe's match was a tense one -- was there any other kind? -- and tantrum stormclouds were gathering on the horizon.

He was in a highly agitated state as he bounced the ball prior to serving it. The ball hit his foot and rolled toward the net, where Gina was on duty.

Mac rudely jerked his chin in her direction, a gesture that translated to: "Get that friggin' ball."

And in front of 20,000 spectators at Madison Square Garden, my sister did an amazing thing.


She stood her ground, jerked HER chin toward the ball and said, "Get it yourself."

Get it yourself. Oh, baby.

Other ballboys and girls feared the fury of McEnroe, but Gina didn't see him that way. She saw the same kid she'd known all her life, the skinny little goofball with too many freckles who used to do cannonballs off the diving board at the Douglaston Club.

So, what happened to that ball when it stopped rolling?

Well, Gina didn't get it. McEnroe didn't get it, either. Tick, tick, tick... suddenly a ballboy from a different ZIP code came running all the way across the Garden to pick up the ball, end the stalemate and prevent police intervention.

As Gina insists to this day, nearly 40 years later: "The ball was a lot closer to John than it was to me."

McEnroe, a longtime family friend, has calmed down over the years. His hair is gray, his eyebrows are doing that mid-life Irish dance and it's just a matter of time before he's invited to be the Grand Marshal at the St. Patrick's Day Parade.

But he was on fire that day in Madison Square Garden, all those years ago, and so was my sister, in her own smoldering way.

And those ballsy words she spoke have lifted me through many a dreary day.

It's an ancient tabloid cliche, but it's true, all right -- the little guy (or girl) can be a hero. Way to go, Gina.

Wish I could remember who McEnroe was playing that day at the Garden. It might have been Brad Gilbert. I suppose I could try and look it up, but you know what?

Get it yourself.

Damn, that felt good.

Charlie Carillo is a producer for the TV show "Inside Edition" and a novelist. His website is

Photo courtesy of Melchior DiGiacomo