After every few dashes across Court 14, Kelly Bruno reached down to her right leg and flicked at something. It was a gesture so slight and so fleeting, she could have been swatting away a bug. It was also the only thing she did that was not in the protocol for a United States Open ball girl — nowhere does it mention popping the pressure valve on a prosthetic leg.
Bruno was born with several defects in her right leg and has been an amputee since she was 6 months old. By 18, she had turned herself into a track star among disabled athletes, with her own sponsorship deals. And as a world-class triathlete and Ironman competitor, she has raced in some of the most grueling events on the planet.
Now, at 24, Bruno has scaled back her training for three weeks to shuttle back and forth across courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to scoop up balls at the net. In a job done correctly only by those who are barely noticed, Bruno has stood out by blending in.
“It’s definitely harder than I expected,” she said, flashing an easy smile. “For me the running is not as tiresome, but I didn’t think standing was going to be so exhausting.”
This coming from a woman who began her journey to the Open after a brutal 0.9-mile swim in jellyfish-laden waters, a 24.9-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run at the sun-baked New York City Triathlon in June. John Korff, the triathlon’s organizer and a member of the United States Tennis Association board of directors, suggested that she try out to be a ball girl to give disabled athletes more exposure.
From the start, she received no special treatment. In June, she turned up to the first round of tryouts as one of two amputees — the other one became a court attendant — amid roughly 400 hopefuls. Before the second round, her athlete’s mentality kicked in. She decided she would take the same route to the Open as the players: she would train. Instead of slice serves and topspin backhands, she would master the two-handed grab and the one-hop throw.
Bruno slogged through a second tryout and the tournament’s qualifying rounds to become one of the 75 people assigned to ball duty for the Open’s main draw. At first, she had to answer a lot of questions from her younger colleagues, which she did with her usual good humor.
“Most of them have never met anyone who’s run an Ironman, let alone lost a leg,” she said.
In 18 years as the Open’s director of the ball program, Tina Taps said she had never seen an amputee apply to be a ball worker. “I can’t say she’s no different than anyone else,” Taps said. “She’s actually probably superior in terms of athletic ability.”
But long before Bruno’s athletic ability catapulted her into the elite ranks, she used sports like soccer, basketball and baseball to prove that she could be just average.
“Especially during a lot of those years when you’re trying to fit in, you want to be like everyone else,” she said. “I obviously wasn’t.”
By high school, she had turned to track. She briefly held world records in her Paralympic category in the 200 and 800 meters. But injuries born from overuse and compensating for her Cheetah prosthetic — the same kind used by the South African runner Oscar Pistorius — sent her to cross-training as a freshman at Duke. It was there, spending time in the swimming pool, on the stationary bike and in training with Duke’s cross-country team that she explored triathlons.
Within three years, she had reached the International Triathlon Union World Championships. She has competed there again twice since graduating in 2006 and finished third among women this year in Vancouver, running in the able-bodied field. It is the only place, she said, where her results really matter.
“It’s a pretty small group to be competing just in the physically challenged categories,” she said. “So to really get any better, you have to pick a new goal.”
Bruno lives in Durham, N.C., and is applying to medical school. She has two more major races this season, and she said her training was being severely affected by the Open. All the free time she has had in New York, those precious hours not consumed by tennis or by her applications, have been sweated away in the hotel gym and on long, lonely runs.
It is the same kind of commitment she sees every day from the players hammering shots into the nets she patrols.
“What I enjoy the most is just being on the court with someone else who’s competitive,” she said. “I can appreciate their drive and their athleticism. You almost feel like you’re a part of it.”