The U.S. Open Tennis Championships marks its 50th anniversary this year, and it is celebrating in style with the completion of a multiyear renovation of its home, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
The anniversary of the tournament coincides with the anniversary of the sport’s “open era.” Although tennis can trace its roots back to the 1600s, and the U.S. Open tournament started in 1881, it was only in 1968 that professional players were able to join amateurs in the major tournaments around the world. That move created the modern era in professional tennis and helped grow the sport to where it is today, with prizes running into the millions of dollars. (In 1968 the prize money at the U.S. Open was $14,000 for the men and $6,000 for the women, while last year’s singles champions each took home $3.7 million).
The U.S. Open, which will be held August 27–September 9 at its longtime home in Flushing, Queens, in New York City, is not the only tennis event looking to the future with new additions. For instance, the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati is constructing a new $25 million five-story building, the Miami Open broke ground earlier this year on a new venue at Hard Rock Stadium, and a new event featuring the top men’s players—the Laver Cup—will hold its second iteration in Chicago.
Unveiling a New Stadium
When the new Louis Armstrong Stadium is unveiled at this year’s U.S. Open, it will be the final piece in the five-year transformation of the National Tennis Center. According to Katrina Adams, a former WTA player and now chairwoman of the board and president of the USTA, the $600 million project has been in the works for almost 10 years.
“The construction has been over five years, but it all started in 2010 with what we called the strategic vision, where we envisioned what the new facility would be like,” said Adams. “Now it’s finally coming to completion. For me, having played there in the 1980s and knowing what the facility looked like then and where it is now, it’s a night-and-day difference and exciting to be a part of.”
The most obvious changes appeared in 2016 when the retractable roof opened (and, occasionally, closed) over Arthur Ashe Stadium and the new 8,125-seat Grandstand court was added, which allowed the USTA to make full use of its grounds. “From a business perspective, the roof over Arthur Ashe—the ‘crown’—was the biggest achievement because it allowed for continuous play,” said Adams. “But moving the Grandstand to the southwest corner was huge, as it allowed traffic flow to spread out over the grounds a lot more.”
The renovation also includes more restaurants, bathrooms and retail options. “As I walk around during the day and see the flow of traffic and the comfort fans and players are enjoying, it’s great,” said Adams.
Fan comfort is also one of the priorities for the new stadium. The USTA recently announced that the 14,000-seat venue will be the first naturally ventilated tennis stadium with a retractable roof. The ventilation system was designed to enhance the outdoor feel of the place—something fans loved about the old stadium—by eliminating the need for air conditioning, even when the roof closes (which can be done in less than five minutes).
The stadium will feature a two-bowl setup that allows the U.S. Open to sell reserved-seat tickets in the lower bowl while keeping the upper bowl open for general admission. “It will be very rewarding to see the completion of Louis Armstrong Stadium and the build-up of the site for this year’s U.S. Open,” said Adams. “It will be a huge celebration.”
That celebration will begin the week before the tournament and won’t just be confined to the grounds of the tennis center (where qualifying rounds are free and open to the public). Launched last year, U.S. Open Fan Week events will also take place in Manhattan. “Not everybody has a chance to come out to Flushing Meadows,” said Adams, “so we like to go into Manhattan and showcase what we’re doing and get people excited about the event.”
Cincinnati Event Expands
Getting people excited about the U.S. Open is also one goal of the U.S. Open Series, the five-week summer tennis season that precedes it. One of the biggest events in that series is the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. It is staged at the Lindner Family Tennis Center, which will open its new South Building for this year’s tournament, to be held August 11–19.
The oldest tournament in the United States that is still held in its original city (it started in 1899), the Western & Southern Open now has the USTA as a majority owner. The tournament is also one of the few events outside the Grand Slams that features players from both the men’s and women’s tours. Its placement in the schedule just two weeks before the U.S. Open means it is able to attract most of the top players.
“It’s a tournament that’s positioned in a great place in the calendar,” said Andre Silva, Western & Southern Open tournament director. “Even players who take a break after Wimbledon want to play a big event before the U.S. Open, so we’re right in that wheelhouse.”
Attracting top players was a key reason for the tournament’s decision to add a building with new player amenities back in 2009, but the latest addition was designed to elevate the fan experience. The new 40,000-square-foot South Building is being constructed between the Center and Grandstand courts and will offer views of one or both matches. Perhaps the most unique feature is a restaurant and bar that open up to indoor climate-controlled box seats so fans can sit in the restaurant or bring food back to their seats and not miss any of the action (or disturb the players).
“The concept was to elevate the experience and create more premier areas for companies and fans who want to entertain,” said Silva. “Hospitality is key, and in this day and age sponsors are not just looking to slap signs on the back of the court. They want to create experiences.”
Silva mentioned that the increased focus on hospitality will be felt throughout the grounds and is particularly significant as studies show that the average stay per day at a tennis event is six hours. “It’s especially important in the early rounds when there are so many matches and so many story lines,” said Silva, who noted that tennis is a sport where the live experience surpasses that on television. “The beauty of tennis is that once people are there, in person, they appreciate it more.”
Miami Switches Venues
Providing an improved fan experience is why the Miami Open is making the rather unconventional move into a football stadium. The “new Miami Open experience at Hard Rock Stadium,” which is being built in parking lots adjacent to the stadium, will include 30 courts; a “tennis oasis” with what’s being touted as the largest video screen at any tennis event; a sponsorship and entertainment village; retail facilities; and improved media facilities, locker rooms and fitness space. The 14,000-seat Center Court will be located within Hard Rock Stadium, home of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.
“The new facility will be an upgrade across the board and will make for a better experience for the players, fans and the media,” said James Blake, Miami Open tournament director. “There will be more amenities throughout the grounds including more practice courts, additional seating on the outer courts, expanded locker room and lounge space, high-end hospitality options, more parking and easier access to the facility.”
Groundbreaking for the new site took place during this year’s Miami Open in March, the 32nd and final year for the event at Crandon Park Tennis Center in Key Biscayne. In a fitting sendoff, Americans won all four titles (men’s and women’s singles and doubles).
Laver Cup Launches
The resurgence of American tennis bodes well for the Laver Cup, which will be held at United Center in Chicago, September 21–23. The event, which launched last year in Prague, pits Team Europe (with captain Bjorn Borg) against Team World (with captain John McEnroe). While the initial buzz around the event was due to the fact that longtime rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would be playing doubles together, it was the camaraderie among teammates and the close competition—which came down to a final tiebreaker that Federer won 11-9 over young Australian player Nick Kyrgios—that really elevated the event.
Steve Zaks, managing director for the Laver Cup, said that the organizers’ goal for the event is “tennis unrivaled,” not only because of the high level of players involved (teams are made up of the top four ranked players plus two captain’s picks) but also the nature of longtime rivals playing together as a team. “We want to provide an unrivaled experience to everyone who comes into contact with the event,” said Zaks.
The idea for Laver Cup came out of discussions at TEAM8, Roger Federer’s agency, as to what tennis needed, according to Andre Silva, who worked for TEAM8 during those discussions before joining the Western & Southern. The idea of a Ryder Cup-style event was brought up, and when it came to naming it, Federer wanted to pay his respects to Rod Laver. “Roger wanted to honor those that came before him,” said Silva.
“I love history and looking back on what the players did,” Federer said at a press conference for the event in Chicago. “They paved the way for us, and it’s important to show respect for what they have done.”
Once the event—a joint initiative between TEAM8, Tennis Australia, the USTA and Brazilian investor Jorge Paulo Lemann—was established, it was time to choose a site, which unlike most tennis tournaments will rotate each year between cities in Europe and the rest of the world. Both Prague and Chicago had similar attributes sought by the organizers: big cities that can provide a large arena and that don’t currently have a top-tier tennis event. “We wanted a desirable travel destination and business center that would also have a strong demand for tennis,” said Zaks.
“I think going to a city that doesn’t host any tennis tournaments but has a large tennis following is great,” Federer said during a press conference held at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. “It’s going to be great to go to one of the biggest cities in America.”
To promote this year’s event, the Chicago Sports Commission worked with the Laver Cup team to set up a tour of the city for Federer and Kyrgios, said Kara Bachman, executive director of the CSC. In March, the two players hit some of the major sites in the city (yes, they had deep-dish pizza) and toured United Center. The CSC also arranged for them to meet former Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen.
“Scottie was thrilled to meet them and vice versa,” said Bachman, who said the tour and press conference—which also included Rod Laver, John McEnroe and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—illustrated the power of sports tourism. “We just had Roger Federer selling our city.”
Part of the draw of the Laver Cup is its ability to bring multiple generations of tennis legends together—from a “Next Gen” player like Kyrgios to tour veterans Nadal and Federer to captains Borg and McEnroe to Laver himself.
“One of the reasons Roger wanted to recognize Rod Laver is because through his sacrifices and those who played around him, Roger and the other players are able to make a great living and spend their lives playing tennis,” said Zaks. “This gives the tournament part of its heart and its mission to spread the word and help grow the game of tennis and create greater interest.”
Inspiring that next generation of tennis players is part of the goal with all of these events. “They will be the next ambassadors of our sport,” said Adams.