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USTA unveils plans for major transformation of Billie Jean King Tennis Center

A handout rendering of the USTA's planned improvements

A handout rendering of the USTA's planned improvements to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. (Aug. 15, 2013) Credit: James Escher

At the end of what could fairly be called a decade of exhausting five-set matches, the United States Tennis Association Thursday unveiled its plans to reinvent the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open.

After more than 10 years of research and planning, quandaries and frustration, the USTA revealed a grand scheme, one that includes a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, another one over a rebuilt Louis Armstrong Stadium, a new Grandstand Stadium and several other enhancements to the fan experience that will add up to $550 million and take more than four years to complete.

It's a roof over Ashe Stadium Court that has been so highly anticipated and so frustratingly difficult to achieve. With five straight late-event rain delays making for five straight Monday finishes, the roof question was first and foremost, but not the only consideration.

"There were some significant hurdles to overcome," said Gordon Smith, executive director of the USTA at a news conference in Manhattan. "How do you tear down two aging stadiums on the same site with a minimal amount of additional land? How do you put a roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest in the world? It wasn't built for a roof, and the land conditions around on the site are abysmal. How are you going to eliminate crowd congestion, elevate fan experience, and at the same time invite 10,000 more people a day to your tournament?"

Here's how, according to USTA officials and Matt Rossetti of the Michigan-based architectural firm that designed the tennis center's transformation.

The roof for Ashe Stadium will be a structure separate from the stadium with massive underground support platforms to stabilize it on the swampy land. The materials will be lightweight, though it still is an immense undertaking. The two parting panels, which take five to seven minutes to close, will be 400 tons apiece, and a total of 5,000 tons of steel will be used. The Ashe roof will be nearly 200,000 square feet, more than three times the roof size over Centre Court at Wimbledon. The Teflon fabric for the roof, it is hoped, will make it seem that the tennis still is outdoors.

If the permitting process and construction moves rapidly, the Ashe roof could be in place by 2016, though a 2017 completion would be acceptable to the USTA.

A roof for Armstrong will be the last part of the project, to be completed in 2018. Before that roof is done, Armstrong will be rebuilt to accommodate 15,000 fans. The Grandstand will be torn down with a new Grandstand seating 8,000 at the southwest part of the USTA's leased property in Flushing Meadows Park. The target is 2015.

Moving the Grandstand is part of the plan to improve spectator flow and ease the congestion caused by the proximity of Armstrong and Grandstand to the main spectator entrance and to the food court.

By 2014 the USTA plans to have spectator viewing for the practice courts. There also will be three new competition courts in that area.

The USTA says funding will come from several sources, but not spectator pocketbooks.

"I think we've made it clear on every occasion, we're not going to pay for this on the backs of our ticket holders," Smith said.

The goal is more than just a better spectator experience. "It's great for the U.S. Open. It's great for the City of New York," Smith said. "But to us it's great for tennis. Because having done all these things, we still have to do the primary thing we exist for, and that's to promote and develop the growth of tennis in the United States."

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