Arthur Ashe. Billie Jean King. Pete Sampras. The U.S. Open has always been defined by overcoming challenges, from heroic feats on the court to the work required to modernize the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Arthur Ashe Stadium operated for 30 years without a roof. When the stadium was first conceived, engineers and planners working for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) studied a century’s worth of weather data. Noting that the weeks around Labor Day tended to be some of the driest, they concluded that it wasn’t worth sacrificing 5,000 seats to accommodate a roof. So, they didn’t build one.
Then the rain came in 2008. And, it didn’t stop. Inclement weather plagued the next five consecutive U.S. Opens, causing pivotal matches — such as one between Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal — to be suspended and wreaking havoc on the center’s grounds. The USTA knew something needed to change. But, taking action proved to be more difficult than anyone imagined.
When we were brought on in 2013, the original design concept for the retractable roof transferred the load through the existing structure, requiring us to dismantle each of the 150 existing columns. In addition, the stadium was built on a former landfill with unstable soil, meaning it couldn’t tolerate the 6,500-ton additional weight. Serving as design-builder, we worked with the ROSETTI architecture team to come up with a solution that left Arthur Ashe’s interior untouched. We devised a way to suspend the roof on a framework of eight super columns, making it an entirely independent structure. Each column is driven 180 feet into earth to reach bedrock, eliminating the need to connect them horizontally underground. This ensured stability and allowed the stadium’s existing infrastructure to remain intact.
The roof itself is comprised of 1,700 individual pieces, covered with lightweight and durable Teflon-coated fiberglass membrane fabric (PTFE). The retractable section of the roof was designed with two identical moving panels, each weighing one million pounds, controlled by an eight-wheel rail system. The roof can open or close in approximately seven minutes, transforming Arthur Ashe into a fully climate-controlled indoor stadium.
As we were figuring out the logistics of the roof, our team was also facilitating a more open feeling throughout the center by moving Grandstand Stadium to the southwest corner of the campus and rebuilding several courts. The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center remained fully operational and occupied during construction, continuing to host the most important matches of the 2014 and 2015 U.S. Open. When the retractable roof debuted at the 2016 U.S. Open, it was put to the test almost immediately, preventing a significant rain delay during a match between Rafael Nadal and Andreas Seppi.
With this year’s U.S. Open currently underway, we have one last accomplishment to celebrate. This year, we completed construction of Louis Armstrong Stadium, the second-largest venue and second retractable roof stadium at the center. The site’s final project not only marks the end of our five-year journey with USTA, but the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Open.
For me personally, and our team, everything we do is built around this one moment. Seeing the client, players and fans enjoying the experience motivates us to continue upping the game.