When Jennifer Gardner got the opportunity to serve as the chairperson of the Player Services Lounge at Cincinnati’s Western & Southern Open, it didn’t take a five-set match for her to commit.

And, immediately, she began to think about her students.

Gardner, who has a background in sports and hospitality (and previously worked with the director of the tennis tournament while at the Cincinnati Bengals), is now the director of the Sports Business Program at Northern Kentucky University. She knew she had something special to offer her students.

“I kind of thought about this as an apprenticeship,” Gardner says of the two-week tournament.

But she also knew it would require a certain kind of student.

“This is a high-profile sports international tournament,” she says. “We needed to find workers who are professional. We needed workers who take initiative, who can make decisions on the fly, who are problem-solvers and trouble-shooters.”

Ultimately, eight NKU students, majoring in either sports business or marketing, were chosen to serve two-week apprenticeships at the 2014 tournament.

Their duties were varied, ranging from handling tickets for the players’ families to distributing the actual tennis balls for the matches. The crew also helped set up the players’ practice time on the courts.

“And the players take that very seriously,” Gardner says. One student even went the extra mile when she saw a player who needed his clothes washed— he’d arrived just after the laundry services had closed. She took his clothes home, washed them and returned them the next day.

“The Player Services area of our Tournament is one of the most critical operations, as it has daily and constant interaction with the players,” says Vince Cicero, director of the tournament. “The players travel the globe and their expectations for service are justifiably very high.”

Gardner says she will continue bringing in students as long as she is in the position. 

“It’s difficult to find apprenticeships like this where students can get put in this position,” she says. “Here, you can get direct interaction with the athletes, and that’s the experience the students need.”

Danielle Hayek, a 22-year-old senior from Dry Ridge, says she enjoyed scheduling practice rounds for the players, assisting them around the tournament and scheduling golfing outings for entertainment.

Matt Hepner, a 22-year-old senior from Elizabethtown, worked behind a counter, taking orders for players to schedule their warm-up sessions.

“This biggest thing I got out of this was accomplishing one of my dreams,” Hepner says. “I am such a huge fan of tennis and to meet and talk to the biggest names in the game was amazing. But at the same time, it was also incredibly humbling. I had to do my job first, which was very hard at times due to the fast pace and almost never ending chaos.”

He was able to learn about the world of the professional athlete.

“Professional athletes live in a totally different world than regular-old me,” he says. “But at the end of the day, they’re just like regular people like me.”

Hayek agrees.

“This was a great experience,” she says. “You have the opportunity to see a huge, local sporting event, behind the scenes.”