The decision to construct a retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, the U.S. Open’s outsize center court, is being hailed as a boon for players, spectators and broadcasters alike.
It is an overdue upgrade that had become an imperative, in many ways, for the tournament to keep up with the sport’s other Grand Slam events. Both Wimbledon and the Australian Open have retractable roofs, and the French Open is planning one to ensure featured matches can continue despite inclement weather.
The U.S. Tennis Association, which stages the U.S. Open and bankrolls grassroots and elite junior training throughout the country from the proceeds, made the surprise announcement Wednesday. But the organization withheld key details — such as the cost, construction timetable and design — for a splashy roll-out during a news conference Thursday in New York.
According to someone familiar with the plans, the retractable roof is part of a roughly $500 million refurbishment of the National Tennis Center in Queens, N.Y., that includes the construction of two new courts and a viewing plaza overlooking the practice courts. The roof project is expected to take at least three years to complete and will likely require the removal of some of the upper rows of seats.
“It’s great that they’re doing it,” said Martina Navratilova, who earned four of her 18 Grand Slam singles titles at the U.S. Open, in a telephone interview. “For players, it’s fabulous. You know you’re going to get to play, so it gives you peace of mind. I know I would have been thrilled. I loved playing indoors, anyway.”
Former pro Brad Gilbert, a commentator for ESPN, said he had no idea it was in the works despite more than a decade of debate.
“There’s nothing worse than having weather affect the U.S. Open, the showcase event in our country,” Gilbert said. “Like everybody else, I’m eager to find out more.”
Patrick McEnroe, the USTA’s director of player development and an ESPN commentator, offered just one word: “Awesome.”
The clamor in favor of constructing a roof on Ashe, at 22,500 seats, the world’s largest tennis stadium, ignited anew each year that rain wreaked havoc on the U.S. Open’s schedule. Over the last five years that clamor was constant, with rain washing out every men’s final since 2008 and bumping it to the broadcasting wasteland of Monday afternoon. In response, this year’s men’s final has actually been scheduled for that spillover Monday, Sept. 9.
Jason Bernstein, senior director of programming and acquisitions at ESPN, which recently signed an 11-year deal expanding its existing coverage of the tournament, welcomed the scheduling clarity that a roof will provide.
“It absolutely helps ensure a speedy conclusion to the event and one we can promote with certainty for the future,” Bernstein said.
Until Wednesday’s announcement, any suggestion that a roof be built atop Ashe was dismissed as too costly and, above all, an engineering impossibility given the weight it would add to an already massive structure constructed atop a landfill. Still, the frequent rain delays had become so disruptive that some suggested razing Ashe, which was built in 1997 without any forethought of a rooftop addition, and starting over from scratch.
“From what I understand, they were waiting for materials that were light enough to do it,” Navratilova said. “They had to wait for technology to catch up.”
Wimbledon, which is held at the tradition-bound All England Club, won plaudits for the roof it installed over its 15,000-seat Center Court, unveiled in 2009 in anticipation of its use in the 2012 Olympics. Wimbledon officials announced in April plans to add another roof, over the club’s second-biggest venue, in 2019.
In May, French Open officials announced they were forging ahead with plans to build a retractable roof over its center court as part of a $440 million refurbishment.
Melbourne Park, which hosts the Australian Open, already boasts retractable roofs on its two largest arenas, which are deployed to shield players from extreme heat, as well as rain.
“It brings it in line with the other Slams,” Navratilova said of the planned roof for Ashe. “It worked where you thought it never would, on the grass at Wimbledon. The French will have it. I think the U.S. Open just had to do it.”