In 1988, the Australian Open held its first match in the Rod Laver Arena, a new stadium featuring a retractable roof that could be closed in the event of rain or excessive heat. It was a novelty. In the years since, as television dollars have become critical to a sporting event’s financial health, Tennis Australia’s once far-sighted contingency planning has come to seem like plain old common sense. (The Australian Open’s Hisense Arena also features a retractable roof.)
Almost 10 years later, the United States Tennis Association opened the gates to its new show court, Arthur Ashe Stadium. At almost 23,000 seats, the colossal venue was, and remains, the largest arena in tennis. For a minute, at least, the stadium’s designers considered equipping the arena with a roof, but then thought better of it. Too expensive. After all, meteorological history suggested that, in New York’s late summer, rain wasn’t a big enough threat to warrant the expense of a roof.
Whoops! The USTA’s judgment was a triumph of probabilities over consequences, the mark of an incompetent steward.
This is the second year in a row that rain will disrupt the conclusion of the U.S. Open. Rafael Nadal’s quarterfinal battle against Fernando Gonzalez has been suspended until Saturday, at the earliest. (Chuckles. Welcome to hurricane season in the Big Apple.) If all goes well, the men’s semifinals will be played on Sunday, and then the finals on Monday, when everyone is back at work and more or less disengaged from the sporting passions that infuse a big event on the weekend.
The U.S. Open has lost its immediacy. The build to a Sunday throwdown, two contenders battling for one of the biggest prizes in sport, has collapsed as we flip through the TV listings to find out wonder whether the year’s U.S. Open final will take place before or after Dr. Phil. Television network executives are no doubt reconsidering how much they’re willing to pay for an event that, as exciting as it may be, is impossible to plan for with confidence.
Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but it’s hard not to see the USTA’s decision as a colossal misjudgment. The rain my not be as persistent in New York as in London, but weather data suggest that New York gets more of it in August and September, more than Paris and Melbourne, too.
But there’s a critical difference between those Slams and New York’s U.S. Open. The U.S. Open is the only one with no plans immediate plans for a roof.