Chris Evert is old enough to be nostalgic about playing in Forest Hills and Louis Armstrong Stadiums, but she is engaged enough with 21st century tennis to appreciate all that is going on at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
After lamenting Wednesday that following the current U.S. Open the old Lou will be gone, Evert looked around Arthur Ashe Stadium and said, “It’s not new and innovative and kind of sexy like this one.”
Then, inevitably, this: “It’s quite a contraption, isn’t it? It’s like a spaceship.”
Naturally, she was looking up at the time, fixated like everyone else at the Open this year on the sexiest development on the grounds: the retractable roof.
But for Evert and her colleagues in Queens, the roof goes beyond mere fan and player comfort.
Evert is an analyst for ESPN, you see, and there might be no entity happier about the roof than the USTA’s primary TV partner. Like all TV partners, it likes scheduling certainty.
Sonia Gomez, senior director of programming, called it “a collective sigh of relief these days. I think it’s made our lives a lot easier. It takes the stress away for us.”
Said Jamie Reynolds, vice president of production, “Well, it’s a $150 million insurance policy, right? . . . At least for a broadcast window, 11 to 11, you can actually have action, and that’s a win.”
It’s not as if ESPN is rooting for rain. That’s not good for fans, players or the tournament in general. Still, with rain forecast for Thursday, there is undeniable curiosity to test drive the new toy.
Reynolds said his team is prepared, but that lighting and sound tweaks might be necessary as they go.
Even before any matches with the roof closed, the retractable structure itself has changed the television dynamics.
“The whole aura, how it looks visually with the new lighting scheme and with the girders, the reflection, what that does in tonality to the interior, is energizing,” he said.
The complicated shade patterns during day sessions have required frequent adjustments for cameras, but it is fine tuning the audio that Reynolds considers the most delicate challenge.
Some players already have noted they hear more background noise than in the past.
ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said, “Stan Wawrinka told us playing with the roof open he was rattled by how easily he could hear everybody’s conversation. The sound travels. It bounces back.”
For Reynolds, the trick is to not let that dynamic bother television viewers.
“Part of me says it creates a little more atmosphere in there, it really sounds like it’s electric,” he said. “That’s good. But are our mic placements in the right place? . . . Are we picking up some of the perimeter noises and the reflection? So we’re trying to calibrate ourselves.”
Reynolds said one TV bonus is the roof structure itself. In the past, the upper reaches of the screen “would just drift off into blackness, the night. Now you have this kind of girdered structure, this white halo, an architectural design up there, and it energizes the whole image from a broadcast standpoint.”
Evert downplayed the effect the roof might have on matches, because players are used to working indoors, and the U.S. Open roof is much higher than its counterpart at Centre Court, Wimbledon.
For the six-time U.S. Open champion, national pride is part of the thrill, and she likes what she has seen at the revamped Tennis Center, from the new Grandstand to the grand new roof.
“I don’t want our grand slam to be left behind,” she said. “We were the first in equal prize money (for men and women), which I’m very proud of, in ’73, and now we’re the third with the roof . . . Every grand slam country wants to be known as the best.”