The reign and the storms: Serena Williams and Arthur Ashe Stadium
Brick and steel rise from the ground in the form of a massive bowl that towers over the surrounding tennis courts in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Lights jut from the top to illuminate the battles on the bright blue court below for the 23,000-plus spectators who fit inside. Arthur Ashe Stadium, the main show court at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, seems to have less in common with the diminutive courts scattered around it and more with the gargantuan baseball stadium, Citi Field, across the way. If bigger is better is an American mantra, Arthur Ashe Stadium -- the largest tennis-specific stadium in the world -- is the physical manifestation of the American, and perhaps specifically New York, style of tennis: big, showy, loud, and not without its share of controversy and drama.
Before Arthur Ashe Stadium, the US Open had a less-than-stellar reputation. The facilities on the (literal) garbage dump-turned-World's Fair site were considered broken down, cluttered, "the ugly duckling of the four tennis Grand Slam tournaments," according to The New York Times. The $254 million renovation completed in 1997, the centerpiece of which was the new stadium, was an emblem of what U.S. tennis wanted to become, a mark it hoped to make on the world.
A 15-year-old Serena Williams first played in the brand-new sparkling behemoth not as a competitor in the US Open, but in an entertaining doubles match with her sister Venus against Luke and Murphy Jensen on Arthur Ashe Kids' Day before the Open officially began in 1997.
Serena finished that season ranked 99th in the world, her first entry into the Top 100. Just two years later, at 17, Serena found her way back to Arthur Ashe for the reason all tennis players want to be there: to earn her first Grand Slam in front of a packed house that towered and roared above her. The first Grand Slam title for either of the closely watched Williams sisters, it was a moment that would forever bind the brightest star of American tennis to its biggest court. A marriage, for better or for worse.
Like any athletic career, Arthur Ashe Stadium has had its moments of grandeur and glitz over the past 19 years, but it's also weathered its share of storms, literally and figuratively.
The open roof has proven problematic in New York City's temperamental late summer days when rain can pour down for hours at a time. Heavy rain falling through that open roof has delayed hundreds of matches -- some years it has seemed that Open matches are rescheduled due to inclement weather more often than not.
And then there's the wind. Players have called the wind in Ashe the most inconsistent of all the Grand Slams. They say even if there's no breeze outside, there's always one on the court. An erratic gust coming off the East River can change even the most well-honed game.
The structure's sheer size, and the clear focus on New York's richest and most famous clientele, has caused tension for fans. The 93 luxury boxes push the seats in the higher levels 30 feet farther from the court than in Louis Armstrong Stadium, the previous show court. Complaints about not being able to see the ball from the "cheap" seats rolled in as soon as the stadium opened. Enough that in 2005 the court was painted blue. The players are just as far away, but even in the highest seats, against a blue court, you can see the bright yellow ball. And since last year, spectators can direct their attention to one of four big screens to witness the players' every grunt and facial expression.
That means that, in an exciting moment, all 23,000-plus fans can scream and yell, cheer and boo, to create an atmosphere more akin to an NBA game than a tennis match. The sound of thousands of fans, mixed with the fury of unruly weather in the vast stadium, can set the stage for massive drama.
A setting that seems tailor-made for Serena Williams.
Throughout Williams' early career, her glimmers of brilliance, like her 1999 US Open title, were sometimes clouded by loss and disappointment -- a knee injury, or the question of whether she would find her way out of her older sister's shadow. In 2001, the sisters faced off in a US Open final for the first time. The match was in prime time. The world watched. Serena crumbled, falling in two sets to Venus.
The next year, conditions shifted. Serena met her older sister in the final again. Before the match, Aretha Franklin sang the national anthem and Serena playfully whispered something in Venus' ear. But as soon as the two took the court, Serena came at Venus full-force, taking the first set and never easing up. Serena clinched her second US Open title in front of a record crowd at Arthur Ashe that gave the sisters a standing ovation. "I'm elated right now!" Serena said after a match that proved she had what it takes to be the best player in the world.
After an injury-plagued 2003 season, Serena seemed due for a US Open comeback in 2004. But in a quarterfinal against fellow American Jennifer Capriati, Serena's run was cut short by what many commentators described as numerous bad calls. Once the chair umpire even overruled a line judge's call that Serena's return was in, calling it out. Video replay clearly shows the umpire was wrong. After the loss, Serena told the press she "felt robbed." The following day she got a call of apology from the USTA.
Like the wind that gets into Arthur Ashe Stadium and swirls around until it becomes a mini-hurricane, Serena's problems with the judges at her home Grand Slam gained strength in subsequent years.
In a 2009 semifinal, after a line judge called a questionable foot fault on Serena's serve, which gave Kim Clijsters a match point, Serena lost it. She cursed loudly and reportedly threatened to cram the ball down the line judge's throat. The massive crowd filled the bowl with boos as officials awarded Clijsters a decisive penalty point for Serena's outburst that handed Clijsters the match. Serena shook her opponent's hand, packed her rackets and left the court amid boos, cheers and whistles. She was fined more than $90,000, the largest ever levied against a tennis player.
When the rains came through Ashe's open roof in 2011, they pushed Serena's semifinal to late Saturday night. She played the final less than 24 hours later. Then, when the chair umpire ruled that Serena's shout of "Come on" hindered her opponent, Australia's Samantha Stosur, from returning a forehand and awarded her the point, the tempest inside Serena exploded again. Serena shouted at the umpire, pointed her racket, and called her "unattractive inside." Her home crowd attempted to harness the energy to raise Serena up for a comeback. Instead, she fell to Stosur in two sets.
Serena's on-court storms have always garnered attention -- like most of her actions, successes and defeats. After all, she is a trailblazer, unique in her sport. The name emblazoned on the outside of the stadium where Serena has put her own name in the record books is a reminder of her heritage, a fellow African-American pioneer in a traditionally white sport. Ashe's career, like Serena's, was not always easy. Breaking barriers rarely is.
At first, the board of the United States Tennis Association decided to name the US Open's glorious new court after itself: USTA Stadium. But a second vote by the board christened it Arthur Ashe Stadium instead. Ashe was not only the first man to win the first US Open of the Open era in 1968, he was the first black man to win any Grand Slam event. For the rest of his life he worked to bring tennis to all youth -- not just the privileged few. He died in 1993, at 49 years old, of AIDS -- which he contracted from a blood transfusion. Serena Williams was 11 years old.
Harry Marmion, the USTA president at the time the stadium opened, said Ashe's legacy was one they wanted to bring to the US Open, and all of U.S. tennis. "We're trying to shed the elitist image," he said at the time. "I want to democratize this organization, and I want to see it get tennis out of the country clubs and into the parks."
That image is still under construction. Thirty-three years after Ashe's trailblazing win, in 2001, Serena Williams faced boos and jeers that she felt were racially motivated at a California tournament at Indian Wells. She boycotted the tournament for 13 years.
To Serena, then, the USTA's decision to name its landmark stadium after Ashe makes a difference. In a 2015 BBC documentary on Ashe, Serena said she thinks about him when she plays there.
"When I walk out at Arthur Ashe Stadium, it's such a big stadium that first you just take in the moment, but then at the same time you take in the history of playing in a stadium named after someone who's broken so many barriers and did so much for sport and black people in sport," she said. "When I was coming up in the late '80s there weren't any African-Americans playing. ... Reading the stories about how Arthur wasn't able to play when he was 12 motivated me, because I thought, 'Wow, because of what he went through, what he did, I have the opportunity to play.' I have an opportunity to be the best I can be, because of him."
On that blue court, at times, she has been the best she can be. Serena became the first African-American woman to win the US Open since Althea Gibson in 1958, the first woman tennis player to earn $40 million in career prize money, and then the first woman to win $50 million in prize money -- today, she's up to $80 million.
She has also shattered all expectations there. At one point, it seemed Serena's reign of greatness was long gone. In 2008, after her ranking fell as low as 139th in the world, she battled Jelena Jankovic -- who held the No. 1 ranking Serena had left behind earlier -- in the final. Serena played for every point. The crowd exploded at each one. Upon striking the backhand that won her the second set and her third championship, Serena flung her racket into the air. It seemed to go all the way up to those very highest seats. The 26-year-old jumped up and down with glee. She was back on top, regaining the No. 1 spot five years after she last held that ranking, the longest any woman tennis player has gone between moments of being officially the best in the world.
She won it all at Arthur Ashe again in 2012, which meant she'd been a champion there in three different decades: the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. She must have liked proving to everyone that she wasn't even close to being done because she came back in 2013 for another. Then in 2014, as New York's celebrity elite -- like Spike Lee, Eva Longoria, Robert Redford and Christy Turlington Burns -- watched from those infamous luxury boxes, Williams proved who was the biggest star of all. She beat Caroline Wozniacki for her 18th overall Grand Slam, making history once again. The number put her in the same league as legends Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, both of whom presented Serena with an 18-karat gold bracelet on court.
If Serena's career proves anything, it is that greatness can always be improved upon.
Since the rainy New York summers began bludgeoning the US Open schedule, the USTA has been trying to find a way to add a roof to Ashe Stadium. But there was a problem: The strange parkland is marshy. Garbage and ash from coal-burning furnaces were dumped there until the 1930s, and the site is bordered by two expressways and a vast parking lot, within spitting distance of LaGuardia Airport and a full 45-minute subway ride from midtown Manhattan. For years, studies determined that adding a traditional roof was simply an impossible task on this ground. But in 2013, the architectural firm that originally designed Arthur Ashe started on an innovative plan to add a superstructure around the existing stadium that would include a retractable roof. This year, the new $150 million roof will be used at the Open for the first time.
Though the roof will close only when it rains, the superstructure has added shade to parts of the stadium and, some say, makes the cavernous bowl feel somehow more intimate. No one knows yet exactly how a closed roof will affect play inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, except that it will be different. Those who witnessed the closing of the new roof for a media day earlier this month noticed that when closed, the noise inside, even with almost no one there, increased. How will that impact an already loud tennis tournament? Ideally, the retractable roof will cut down on weather delays, as well as those turbulent winds, but will that get rid of some of the difficulties that make it unique?
When Serena Williams, now 34, walks up to the newly made-over Arthur Ashe Stadium for her first-round match Tuesday night at the 2016 US Open, nearly 20 years since the first time she played there, she may be reminded of how quickly things can change - such as her stunning semifinal loss last year to Roberta Vinci that ended Serena's quest for a calendar Grand Slam.
She will walk past Arthur Ashe's name on that steel and brick facade, and maybe consider all the barriers she has broken, and what the next one will be. A win at this year's US Open would bring her to 23 total Grand Slams, past Steffi Graf, and just one away from the most all time: 24, held by Australia's Margaret Court.
Farther in, at the entrance to the player's lounge, she'll come to a wall inscribed with a familiar quote: "I wanna wake up in the city that doesn't sleep, to find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap. If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere.''
The words, sung by Liza Minnelli, and of course, later, Frank Sinatra, may remind Serena of all the times she has left this place at the top of the heap: 1999, 2002, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014. And how many more times she still might.
This very New York City quote fits here, inside this boasting, turbulent, larger-than-life American stadium.
Serena fits here too.