While tennis fans watch Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic at the US Open, Daniel Zausner will be looking heavenward — and all around.
As COO of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, he’s responsible for what he calls a five-year, approximately $600 million “transformation” of the center, which includes the new retractable roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium that will debut at the end of this month, along with the new Grandstand Stadium and revamped Southern Campus. For players and fans alike, this will mean more amenities and more comfort without sacrificing any intimacy with the tennis action.
“Before Arthur Ashe opened in 1997, we had looked at weather reports that said the weeks before and after Labor Day were relatively dry,” Zausner says. So, no roof.
Then came the periodic deluges of the 2000s and 2010s. The White Plains-based United States Tennis Association (USTA) studied roof proposals in 2004, ’07, ’08, ’09 and ’10. But nothing seemed feasible or affordable. To understand why, says Zausner, clearly a student of history and literature, you have to look back to the 1920s and ’30s when the site — in Flushing Meadow-Corona Park, Flushing, Queens — was an ash heap that provided a backdrop for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel “The Great Gatsby.” (The site would later be the setting for the 1939 and ’64 World’s Fairs, with the tennis center built around the remnants of the ’64 exposition.) A roof atop the Arthur Ashe would sink the 23,771-seat stadium.
But then one of the architectural firms that had made a proposal, the Detroit-based Rosetti came back with a winner — a concrete, steel and fabric structure that would envelop Arthur Ashe, leaving a 250-foot-by-250-foot opening atop that could be closed in five to 10 minutes when weather turned inclement.
“The permanent structure will always have constant shade,” Zausner says, increasing the shadiness of the facility from about 20 percent to more than 75 percent. Along with a climate-control system, this will have a marked effect on a place whose convivial atmosphere has been rivaled only by its sultriness.
While fans may be more comfortable, will this also benefit players who in the past have suffered from the heat? Time will tell. Certainly, they don’t have to worry about the shade affecting play. The stationary part of the roof superstructure — featuring more than 6,500 tons of steel built on eight bases made of three steel columns each — actually debuted last year. At that time, a covering on the southern and western sides of the roof alleviated shadow issues on court.
Now, Zausner adds, players won’t have to worry about their schedules being upended either. Once they start a match, they’ll be able to finish it without seeing it called for rain and then having to make it up the next day and, thus, sacrifice a day off between matches.
Arthur Ashe’s retractable roof isn’t the only new innovation, however. The Grandstand Stadium — constructed diagonally across from the old fairground Grandstand Court — increases grandstand capacity from 6,000 to 8,000 seats in a sunken design that places fans right on top of the action, Zausner says. This stadium is informally connected to the 2,800-seat Court 17, built in 2011, by 10 courts that have been replaced with new ones and a widened allée (40 by 500 feet) that features more greenery and retail and dining space.
Once the Open — which runs Aug. 29-Sept. 11 with Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day set for Aug. 27 — finishes, the 10,103-seat Louis Armstrong stadium will be demolished, along with the old Grandstand Court. The new Louis Armstrong, also with a retractable roof and some 4,000 more seats, will debut in 2018. In the meantime, Zausner says, a temporary stadium will be built in Parking Lot B for next year’s Open.
Will he get to see any of the action? Zausner laughs. He’s one busy guy. But as long as the players and fans are happy, he’s happy.
“We never sit still here,” he says. “We’re always looking to figure out what’s next.”