Live From the US Open: USTA’s Zausner Talks Arthur Ashe Roof Progress, Plans for Campus Expansion

After five years of rain delays that forced the Men’s Final to Monday, Arthur Ashe Stadium is getting a roof. The superstructure that has risen over the facility is a technological marvel — after all, Ashe was never intended to get a roof, so design teams had to get creative — currently boasting 1,700 structural beams and 6,500 tons of steel. After this year’s US Open, two gliding panels weighing a combined 800 tons will be installed over the superstructure and will close over a 62,500-sq.-ft. opening, reportedly in less than seven minutes. And then, jokes USTA Chief Operating Officer Danny Zausner, “it won’t rain for ten years.”

The roof structure isn’t the only new thing happening at Ashe. The USTA has installed four new videoboards on each side of the stadium, a new sound system, and all-new LED court lights.

SVG sat down with Zausner at his office in Arthur Ashe Stadium to discuss the progress on the roof, how — exactly — a retractable roof of this magnitude will open and close, the unforeseen challenges and unexpected benefits of the project, and what’s next on the to-do list to revitalize the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Danny Zausner, COO, USTA

Danny Zausner, COO, USTA

What has been done thus far?
The roof was broken up into three phases. And keep in mind, all the construction has to get done in between US Open periods. We didn’t have the luxury of a lot of new-stadium construction, where you build in the parking lot. Here, we have to host the event, and our contractors had to work within the confines of a very constrained site because of the existing structures that are there every which way.

Before the 2014 US Open, we did all the underground work. 2014 was all about the underground supports that were going to hold up the 6,500 tons of steel. Ultimately, that got done before 2014, and the average fan [at the 2014 Open saw,] in eight corners of the stadium, what looked like a round flower pot that was actually the base — the pedestals — for the steel columns that were going to go up.

Shortly after last year’s Open, the cranes came in, and between 2014 US Open and 2015 US Open, we installed the entire permanent fixed roof structure. The infamous 6,500 tons of steel — that’s all done at this point.

As soon as this Open’s over and everyone leaves, we will start the third phase, to be done [before the] 2016 US Open.

What will the third phase entail?
The third phase includes installing the two retractable panels that are going to sit on top of the fixed roof that’s already installed. Once those panels are installed, we’ll also install all of the fabric that covers all the steel that encloses the roof. The shutter doors that will come down the side — there’s about 15 ft. of height between the last row of seats and where the roof actually starts; when we have to close the roof, there will be these shutter garage doors that close at the same time — will kind of envelop the whole building and enclose it. We have to install all the roof mechanization and all the — what we would call — air-conditioning, and that’s going to be pumping in cold air whenever we have the roof closed, primarily just to control humidity. That’s for next year.

The superstructure for the roof diminished the wind effect in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The superstructure for the roof has diminished the wind effect and provided much-needed shade in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Was there any discussion of building a fixed roof, or was a retractable roof always the plan?
We are an outdoor tournament. The concept of a fixed roof was never something that we were considering. If you look at 100 years’ worth of rain data for the week before and after Labor Day in this region, it’s a relatively dry period. The fact that we had to move the Men’s Finals five years in a row to a Monday would indicate otherwise; it hadn’t happened in 30-some-odd years, and then it happened five years in a row, from 2008 to 2012. But that’s why the roof opening is so large. It’s bigger than any other roof opening for a tennis stadium. You could fit any other tennis stadium inside that roof opening, that’s how big that is.

When the players come here, we still want them to feel that they are playing in an outdoor tournament. We’ve got 18 tournament courts, and it would be silly for us to consider having one that’s played indoors while the other 17 are outdoors. Our running joke is that, once it’s completed, it won’t rain for 10 years. But we’ll have a roof. (Laughs)

How, exactly, will the retractable roof close?
There are two panels: one will be housed on the east side, one on the west side. And there are these winches that carry these enormous aircraft cables. The winches are at the midpoint off on the sides — there are two on each side — and they are attached to the roof panels, and, basically, the computer tells the winches to start turning. As they turn, it either pulls the cables closer or further apart [and] brings the panels towards the center [to close the opening]. The reverse of that is, the winch goes in the opposite direction, and it pulls the panels away from each other back into their resting place on top of the two fixed roof panels on the east and west side.

How will it take for the roof to fully close?
In the neighborhood of five to seven minutes. That was very important to us. When we were early in the design phase, it was looking like it was going to be about 30 minutes long, and we didn’t want the players to be told, ‘Hey, it’s going to take at least 30 minutes before we can get you back out there.’ In that case, they’d probably go back to the locker rooms, and then they’d need to stretch and warm up and get ready. It just didn’t seem fair to them, to the fans, the broadcast partners, so we spent the extra money once we knew it could get done to engineer it in such a way that it would move much faster.

Obviously, building a roof over Arthur Ashe posed some clear challenges, given the stadium’s unique design. Were there any challenges that you maybe didn’t anticipate?
Since we started, the biggest challenge has been weather. We have enjoyed several years of fairly mild winters, [but] the last two have been anything but.

This project has always been about geometry. It was trying to figure out a way to bring the largest cranes possible in. There’d be no way for them to move anywhere because we’re so landlocked. The taller the crane, the farther it can stand. We had one crane on the east side and one on the west side, but the weather was so bad for so long over the winter months, and then we were seeing such strong winds for such a long period of time, that the cranes couldn’t operate even when it wasn’t snowing because it would be really cold and really windy; that was just as bad a combination as if it was actually snowing out. So it got complicated. We ended up bringing a third crane into another area of the site to try to help with the burden of the steel erection so that we could get back on a schedule, because, at the end of the day, we had to be ready for this year’s Open.

And there are trigger points with the steel. Once you got to [around] 50% of the steel erected, it can sustain itself, but if you went past 50%, you had to get to 100%. Otherwise, you couldn’t operate the stadium. It was a big decision we had to make at about 50%: can we get to 100%? The only way we were able to do that was bringing a third crane in, so certainly the biggest issue we had to deal with was weather.

Several players have spoken favorably about the roof structure, saying that is already enhancing acoustics and decreasing wind. And there’s certainly more shade for spectators. What are your impressions of the project thus far?
It has far exceeded our expectations. I think we would have been happy if everyone said their experience wasn’t different than in the past — at least, we [would] know when we had to close it for rain, that we were neutral but happy that we were still playing in the rain — when, in fact, it’s been extremely positive.

From the first players who started practicing under the lights, [we’ve heard that] the lights are phenomenal and it feels as if the wind has diminished [on which is] traditionally a pretty windy court.

Clearly, from a fan perspective, the fact that there’s that many more seats in the shade is tremendous. Even for the players on the court, the shade is great, especially with the four days of intense heat we’ve had so far. Hearing so many players say that they feel that the stadium is that much more intimate now was certainly not a goal of the project, but it was a nice residual outcome of it, and we’re quite pleased to hear that. The fact that the players feel that they hear the sound of the ball better, it’s all positive. It’s a win-win for the fans and the players.

The four new videoboards are pretty far down in the stands. How did you balance adding the displays and needing to eliminate seats?
The roof itself, the structure, is not eliminating a single seat because it’s rising above the seating bowl, but we knew that we wanted to lower the video screens and that was going to eliminate some seats. To keep the capacity where it was is, last year before the 2014 Open, we gutted our entire loge-seating section [middle section between courtside and the promenade]: took out all the rails, took out all the seats, took out all the steps, and added as many seats in the loge as we were going to end up losing. We took out 1,000 seats in the top rows of the upper promenade so we added 1,000 seats in the loge. So there’s 1,000 seats that much better and much lower in the seating bowl than they were before, bringing those fans so much closer to the court and making it a much better experience for them.

In addition to finishing the roof in time for the 2016 US Open, what else is on the docket?
This past winter, we started the construction for the new Grandstand stadium. The existing Grandstand stadium is in the northeast corner of our site, attached to Louis Armstrong; the new Grandstand is going to be in the southwest corner in an area that used to be a very small parking lot outside of our fence line. Now it’s going to have a beautiful, modern 8,000-seat Grandstand court; the existing Grandstand is 6,000 seats. This will be slightly larger but still will have that incredible intimacy and provide a lot of shade for the players and the fans. That’ll get done for next year’s tournament.

And then, literally within two weeks after this year’s tournament, we are going to demolish the 10 field courts that are housed on the south side of our site in between Court 17 and where the new Grandstand will go. Those 10 courts are getting demolished, along with all the buildings that are in those general areas. The courts are then going to shift into the park by 30 ft., and that’s going to create a lot more open space on the site. We’ll build 10 new courts, 10 new buildings surrounding those courts, with all new restrooms, concession stands, merchandise, sponsor activation spaces, and a lot more open space.

Ultimately, when we’re done with the new roof, the new Grandstand, and the new south campus for 2016, when the 2016 Open’s over, we’ll turn our attention to Louis Armstrong Stadium, and that’s when we’ll break ground on the new Louis Armstrong Stadium. The existing Louis Armstrong Stadium is 10,500 seats, and the new one will be somewhere in that range, to as many as 14,000 seats. That will open for the 2018 US Open. So a lot of work over the next four years.

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