The preparations were fast and furious this summer as workers raced to complete the first phase of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center's transformation in advance of the U.S. Open that begins Monday.
The half-billion dollar project, which includes a roof for Arthur Ashe Stadium, a new Grandstand, a rebuilt Louis Armstrong Stadium and a total redo of the south side of the Flushing Meadows complex, is kicked off for this U.S. Open with a rebuilt practice facility and adjoining competitive courts.
Remember trying to watch Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi or the Williams sisters practicing, prying apart the bushes in back of the courts get a peek through the fence? Remember cramming into a tiny viewing area at the fence to the east, hoping to get an autograph when the players exited? Remember going to the top of rows of Court 4 to get any view at all?
Now there are dedicated grandstands that seat up to 1,400 people to watch practice, and on the opposite side there are stands for Courts 4, 5 and 6 that will allow spectators to watch action on all three courts, with Court 5 being the newest television court. Call this new triplex of courts The Open Triadium.
The United States Tennis Association announced last year that it was undertaking a five-year project to significantly upgrade the facility, and also said that the cost of the dramatic changes would not be hoisted upon the 700,000 spectators who annually attend the dazzling fortnight. This is the second transformation of the Tennis Center since the USTA moved to its own facility from Forest Hills in 1978. Arthur Ashe Stadium, and rebuilt field courts, opened in 1997.
USTA officials cite the need to be competitive for the spectator and sponsor dollar in the highly evolving New York market -- new stadiums for the Mets and Yankees, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the renovated Madison Square Garden -- as well as attracting significant spectator numbers from around the world.
"First and foremost, it's about being competitive, making sure fans and the players get the best quality product we can give them," said Danny Zausner, the chief operating officer of the National Tennis Center. "It will produce some new revenues, but it's the opposite of why people build new stadiums.
"One of the largest complaints we get from fans is congestion on the site. They love watching the tennis and there isn't a bad seat in the house in any of the stadiums or the field courts. But they would love more space in every place and that's what we are doing. Even in Ashe where we are putting the roof over the stadium, we have seized the opportunity -- the stadium is 15 years old already -- what can we do in here? We will go from two to four video screens. We're putting all new lighting in there. We are putting surround sound around the whole bowl."
The roof isn't scheduled to be completed until the 2016 tournament. Deep pylons already have been driven (those circular white tank-like objects around Ashe) and after this Open the support system for the roof will be built, followed by the trusses and the roof itself in 2016.
The roof will help address the problem of rain delays that have caused the men's final to be pushed to Monday for five consecutive years (and that final is scheduled for Monday this year), but Zausner says the roof has real spectator benefits.
"Even if there is no rain, the roof will provide shade for a lot of people that we haven't had before," Zausner said. "Just the roof alone will dramatically improve the experience for the fans."
Spectators will notice new LED lighting this year on the new Triadium. "We think it's the first competitive LED lighting in the world," said Chris Widmaier, the USTA's managing director of communications.
So for the 2014 U.S. Open, it's lights, camera, action on another reincarnation of the National Tennis Center.