The United States Tennis Association, after years of analysis, research and design (and not a little debate, criticism and angst) has finally raised the roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
When the U.S. Open begins Monday at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, fans will be treated to its soaring architecture if not its immense functionality. The roof won't be ready for use until the 2016 Open, but the superstructure and some temporary skin that covers the west and south truss work will provide additional shade and glimpse of things to come.
"What is up there now on the west and south sides is a temporary fabric; its primary purpose was to keep the shadows that would be cast from steel on the south and west sides that would make it less than enjoyable for the players on the court," said Danny Zausner, chief operating officer of the tennis center. "A byproduct of that priority is a lot more shade on the south and west sides. The steel itself on all four sides is providing shade, including the upper bowl, which never had shade. Then next year, it will put people in the promenade in the shade, a nice added perk."
It took more than 10 years of architectural planning and engineering study by Rossetti Architects to come up with the solution to putting a roof over the largest stadium in tennis. Eight support columns that surround the stadiums are resting on pilings driven between 120 and 180 feet into the ground. The superstructure of 6,500 tons -- rising from the columns -- won't rest directly on the top of the stadium and there will be a gap between the roof and the stadium lip that can be shut off with 32 panels when the roof is closed for rain.
And make no mistake. Rain has played a big part in finally pushing the roof project to completion. The men's final, always on Sunday afternoons, had been pushed to Monday for five straight years beginning in 2008. The last two years, the USTA scheduled the men's final for Monday and last year pushed the women's final to a Sunday. But in order to get some certainty into the schedule for broadcasters and fans, the roof project had to come to fruition. The schedule this year is more in line with a traditional Grand Slam with the men's semifinals on Friday and the men's final on Sunday. The day off in between allows for rest, but also for the possibility that rain could foul up the schedule.
Despite all that soaring steel over Ashe -- which looks something like modern airport terminal architecture -- there is still much to do to keep the rain out.
"Don't be fooled," Zausner said. "While the roof looks incredibly impressive, there is still a lot of work to do. Neither of the retractable panels are here yet. All the mechanical equipment that needs to be up there is still being assembled. All the ductwork for the air that will be blowing into the seating bowl. All the permanent skin. The goal is that the roof will be done by early June and we will have two months to work through all the mechanization to get it working properly."
When the USTA gave a tour of the roof progress in June, the organization's chief operating officer, Gordon Smith, didn't hold back when he described the scale of the project.
"You could drop the entire Centre Court at Wimbledon through our roof opening," he said. "They are my best friends over there. I'm just pointing out the facts."
By next year, the roof will become the best friend to the players who have had to put up with delays for years, and the fans (23,711 at full capacity) who have had to scurry for cover. And actually, the outside support system has an eaves trough wide enough to provide significantly more shelter this year.
They're almost there.