Redefining spectacular. That is how the USTA's vision and motivation was described almost three years ago when plans to build a retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium were first unveiled at a Manhattan hotel.
Those ambitious and revolutionary plans came to fruition – witnessing spectacular – on Tuesday with the first public demonstration of the $150 million roof opening and closing over the US Open's primary show court.
Gone are the days when rain delays will substantially interrupt play inside the 23,771-seat stadium, the largest tennis arena on the planet, and that key fact was not lost on USTA President and US Open Chairwoman Katrina Adams.
“Uh oh. Did I just feel rain?” Adams joked at the start of the presentation, held under beautiful blue skies with not a drop of rain in sight. “Well guess what? That does not matter anymore. A plan more than 10 years in the making will literally come to a close before your very eyes.
“The 2016 US Open will be truly historic. A lot of bold thinking, incredible hard work and strategic problem-solving went into getting us to this day.”
The ceremony included speeches by USTA Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Gordon Smith, USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center Chief Operating Officer Danny Zausner and president of Rossetti architecture design firm, Matt Rossetti.
“We told you we were going to transform the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and we were going to redefine spectacular,” Smith said. “We told you the US Open deserved nothing less than the best tennis venue in the world and we knew that the most world class of cities deserved nothing less.”
Also on hand was American tennis icon Billie Jean King and Jeanne Ashe, the wife of legend Arthur Ashe, after whom the stadium is named, who pushed the buttons to open and close the roof. National media outlets and USTA employees also took their seats in the lower bowl of the stadium to watch history unfold.
The retractable roof is the centerpiece in a $550-million project that will eventually see 85 percent of the grounds' 42 acres completely overhauled. That renovation includes a new 8,125-seat grandstand stadium in the southwest corner of the site, 10 field courts rebuilt from the ground up and, in 2018, a new Louis Armstrong Stadium.
Construction on the roof took place in stages around the US Open, starting after the 2013 tournament. Each steel and concrete-filled piling is 180 feet below the surface, which would allow a Manhattan skyscraper to be built on the site. The steelwork for the roof, which can withstand hurricane-strength winds, was completed between the 2014 and 2015 events, and the retractable roof components and the teflon-coated fiberglass cover were installed between the 2015 and 2016 competitions.
The result is a 270,400-square-foot roof with a 63,500-square-foot opening, the largest of all the Grand Slam venues and big enough to fit Wimbledon's Centre Court inside. Making up the retractable portion of the roof are two gigantic panels which weight about 800 tonnes and glide on 27-inch steel wheels along a track. In total, more than 5,500 tons of steel used during the construction.
When the roof is closed – it takes about six-and-a-half minutes to close the structure – a cooling system will kick in to control the heat and humidity inside the stadium, which would hold 2.6 billion tennis balls.
“What you’re seeing in motion above you today is an absolute dream come true for me, my staff and a dozen of other consulting firms,” Rossetti said. "The complexity … is mindboggling because frankly as you watch the roof in action, it’s what you don’t see that is most fascinating.
"There are more than four dozen sensors and computers tracking the precise movement of the roof so that to keep it in perfect alignment all along the tracks on each side as it rolls down the tracks at approximately 25 feet per minute. That allows us to open and close the roof at a moment’s notice and in under six minutes.”
Organizers have insisted from the beginning that the tournament will still be an outdoor event, but the new roof means that backlogs with matches and Monday finals are now a thing of the past.