USTA playing catch-up with roof plans

Tennis fans, the good news is that Arthur Ashe Stadium is getting a fancy new hat. The bad news is that the new roof that will make the stadium weatherproof won’t be ready until August 2017 -- which means don’t give that foul-weather gear away to some cod fisherman just yet.

The USTA, under pressure for a few years now to join the Australian Open and Wimbledon as Grand Slam tournaments with roofed stadia, has finally come up with a way to retrofit that roof without, as once suggested, having to knock off the top half of the stadium (which wouldn’t be a bad idea in and of itself).

In recent years, the USTA has gone from denying that a roof is either necessary or affordable (or both) to hoping that lowering the stadium and rebuilding it with lighter materials might enable the present structure to withstand the weight of a roof was the solution to this ever-growing problem. (The men’s final has had to be played on Mondays because of rain for an incredible five consecutive years now.)

As the search for a viable roof took on greater urgency, and rain kept washing out one final after another, the USTA also faced mounting pressure and criticism as those other two Grand Slams made roofed stadia not just state-of-the-art -- but business as usual. The Australians even added a second roofed stadium.

As USTA chairman of the board and president Dave Haggerty said when unveiling the plans Thursday, “We have been working toward a viable design for a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium for a decade. We feel that we now have a design that meets the criteria of being architecturally sound, aesthetically pleasing, reasonably affordable and buildable.”

That’s a long way from neither affordable nor necessary.

“Reasonably affordable” means a mere $100 million-plus, which will cover the cost of erecting eight steel columns around Arthur Ashe to support a retractable roof made of flexible, translucent, PTFE (Teflon) fabric stretched over a steel frame. It seems similar in design to the roof over Wimbledon’s Centre Court, and that one has been a huge success.

The projected five-year timetable is somewhat disappointing, even if we’re talking about a miracle of engineering. Wimbledon’s own roof took just three years to complete, and it cost about half of what the USTA is estimating for its own roof. But then Ashe is a vastly larger arena. Although I admire the commitment this represents on the part of the USTA, a nagging voice inside me asks, “Is it really worth it?”

The answer may very well be “no,” but that doesn’t mean the USTA shouldn’t do it. The reality is that the organization got caught in what the smart folks call a “shifting paradigm.”

Ashe Stadium was built in 1997, just nine years after Tennis Australia built the first dedicated tennis arena to feature a retractable roof, Rod Laver Arena. But in those intervening years, the roofed stadium was transformed from a cross between a luxury and a novelty into a necessity. The only other Grand Slam venue that lacks a roofed stadium is the Stade de Roland Garros, home of the French Open. But the French are in the midst of a massive redesign as well and plan to cover the iconic Philippe Chatrier court.

The USTA was caught up in the tide of history; had the organization waited a few years to build Ashe, it certainly would have opted for a roofed design. This was either a case of truly bad timing or a critical failure on the part of USTA trustees to see even a little ways into the future. The price tag on that myopic vision is hefty, indeed.