Rain Delays Force Tennis Officials to Mull Retractable Roofs -- Again

A full day-night washout of the US Open this week -- with more rain expected for the weekend -- has tennis officials revisiting the question of creating a roofed stadium for the venerable tennis facility.

The biggest drawback is the immense cost -- probably in the ballpark of several hundred million dollars or more -- of retrofitting the gigantic Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The biggest incentive is the continuous flow of revenue from uninterrupted TV coverage.

The US Open is one of the most prosperous of all the major tennis championships.

Australia led the way nearly 20 years ago by creating the first of two retractable roofed stadiums.

Teams of U.S., British, and French architects have visited Melbourne to inspect the Rod Laver and Vodafone Arenas.

Only the All England Lawn Tennis Club, home of Wimbledon, has committed to modernization.

Last year, the club announced it had raised $83.7 million for the roof project.

Wimbledon will inaugurate the roofed Centre Court sometime in 2009.

In Paris, Roland Garros proposed a similar stadium as part of a failed French bid for the 2012 Olympic Games.

The plans are on a shelf.

The U.S. Tennis Association has made no decision, but officials have repeatedly said they cannot ignore the difficulties posed by rain, especially after severe weather interruptions bedeviled the 2003 US Open.

Now, with the 2006 US Open facing gloomy weather forecasts for several days, the issue has resurfaced as something that probably should be done.

In Melbourne, the 2006 Australian Open played out without interruptions -- from the rain or blistering sun.

Most of its matches were played outdoors on 19 outdoor courts. Featured matches were held in the two covered arenas.

The Rod Laver Arena covers 47 acres and seats about 15,000 spectators; the nearby Vodafone Arena covers 25 acres and seats about 10,000.

The impetus for building Melbourne's original roofed stadium came, ironically, not from the threat of bad weather, but the threat of extinction.

In the 1980s, mired in politics and saddled with aging facilities at Kooyong, a hallowed suburban tennis club, the tournament faced possible elimination from the world's tennis schedule.

"I'm not sure he knows it, but John McEnroe was the catalyst," said Peter Brook, the stadium's architect.

"He played here in the 1980s and complained that it [Kooyong] was a cow paddock."

McEnroe's comments alarmed Melbourne natives and became a political issue within the province of Victoria.

Worried that the tournament might be shifted to archrival Sydney, Melbourne officials relocated the Open to public parkland near the center of the city, which hosted the Olympic Games in 1956.

Convinced that they needed a state-of-the-art revolution, Open officials turned to local firm Peddle Thorp Architects.

Brook was a 35-year-old Harvard-trained member of the team assigned to design the facility.

"We had to deal with a complex problem that had never been solved before," he said, recalling that until then, the world's major tennis facilities had featured only open-air stadiums or indoor fixed-roof arenas.

"It's incredibly simple," he said, describing his team's solution: two giant roof panels that roll on railway tracks to expose or protect the courts.

Three years ago, Brook stepped into a small, windowed room at one corner of the Laver Arena and pointed to a panel that controls powerful electric motors.

At an operator's touch, the motors can begin separating the panels, which measure 90 feet by 159 feet each, and weigh a total of 180 tons apiece.

It takes at least 25 minutes to open or close them, averaging only about three feet per minute.

In the nearby Vodafone Arena, constructed 11 years later, the warp speed is about 18 feet per minute and the two panels, measuring about 80 feet by 88 feet and weighing 250 tons, move fast enough to close or open in about 10 minutes.

This stadium is also used for concerts and large conventions.

Total roof cost: $2.7 million, part of the $53 million Australia spent in the 1980s to construct Rod Laver Arena.

Today, Brook estimates, the same stadium would cost about $100 million, with the roof costing no more than about $10 million. Could his concept be used to retrofit the US Open's Arthur Ashe Stadium, which seats upward of 20,000 people, or the smaller Louis Armstrong Stadium?

"Yes, absolutely, " Brook said.

Wimbledon's decision to build a roof was made last year, on a rain-swept day during the tournament, while most of the world's top tennis players sat inside lounges and spectators squirmed under umbrellas, waiting for a break in the showers.

By selling 2,300 subscriptions, priced at 23,150 British pounds each -- about $42,144 -- the club promised each purchaser a reserved seat at Centre Court for five years, beginning in 2006.

The new Wimbledon roof will be fashioned from fabric that club officials described as a "translucent folding concertina."

This will allow sunlight to reach the grass, officials said, and create a feeling of watching play in an open-air setting.

"The fabric to be used is a special waterproof structural material that is very strong and highly flexible," according to a club statement released last year.

The club said tournament officials would be able to close the new roof in less than 10 minutes.

Club members pledged to resume play 10 minutes to 30 minutes after the closing process had started and planned to continue covering the court with tarpaulins while they operated the retractable roof.