This year's No. 1 public nuisance at the U.S. Open -
too much rain - remains a distinct possibility for the rest of the tournament's
two-week run, but organizers feel better armed to confront it with the latest
mechanical and strategic tools, beginning with so-called "slamboni" machines.
The informally named slambonis - 38 vehicles at $18,000 apiece resembling
ice hockey's Zamboni - are the result of a U.S. Tennis Association court-drying
task force that was formed after the 2003 Open, when rain repeatedly
interrupted play. Because rain delays play havoc not only with players' rhythms
but also with ticket-exchange policy and TV coverage, USTA executive Arlen
Kantarian insisted after the 2003 event that his organization find some way to
decrease the roughly 20 minutes previously needed to dry courts after rain
The 12-person task force included an MIT Ph.D. named George Pratt and
included such brainstormed ideas as employing industrial microwaves to zap the
courts dry with radiation. That sort of method would have required workers to
wear special protection against radiation, however, and was dropped. Also
rejected was the use of tarps, in part because at other tournaments tarps
damaged the playing surface.
A separate, simultaneous roof-feasibility study determined that placing a
retractable roof over the enormous Arthur Ashe Stadium was cost-prohibitive,
potentially running as high as $100 million. Erecting a roof over the attached
courts of Louis Armstrong and the Grandstand would create additional problems
in accommodating Ashe ticket holders if rain-interrupted matches were moved to
the smaller venues.
Instead, the USTA enlisted DecoTurf, which surfaces the King center courts,
to develop a more water-resistant coat and contacted nine companies about
engineering court-drying machines. The winner was Tennant of St. Paul, an
industrial cleaning company that created the Zamboni-like squeegee-and-vacuum
truck. Officials further devised a pattern at which the slambonis - so
nicknamed because the Open is a Grand Slam event - could most efficiently and
quickly dry the courts without bumping into each other, though they move at a
Slamboni drivers, who are members of the King center grounds staff, were
specially trained before the tournament began. A USTA spokesman said that as
many as seven courts can be dried simultaneously and that drying time has been
cut approximately 30 percent.
It has been suggested that the song "Baby Elephant Walk" be played to
accompany the slamboni exercise, and that - because the drivers wear all-white
- ice cream could be sold out of the machines as well.