Pro Tennis Stadiums Eye Retractable Roofs

Fifteen years after Peter Brook designed the world's first retractable-roof stadium for tennis, he was standing, unrecognized, at the gates of his brainchild.

"Sorry, sir," said a smiling Australian Open attendant, barring entry, "it's security."

Brook shifted his weight and smiled faintly as he waited for a visitor's pass to arrive from the press office so he could escort a reporter into Rod Laver Arena, the first of two tennis stadiums that carried his concept into reality.

"I'm the only one left," he said, brushing his hair from his forehead and adjusting a pair of scholarly spectacles. "Everyone who worked on this [in the 1980s] is gone, and the people who run it these days don't know much about it."

Idea Catching On

Oddly enough, it is the world beyond Australia that is most eager to know about Brook's inventive designs. Driven by pressure from television advertisers and fans disturbed by weather delays, teams from London, Paris, and New York are studying the idea of fitting their tennis stadiums — current and future — with retractable roofs.

If calculations connect with financing and television contracts, Wimbledon will inaugurate a roofed Centre Court sometime in 2009 and Roland Garros will propose a similar stadium for 2012 as part of a bid by Paris for the Olympic Games.

For New York's Flushing Meadows, the U.S. Tennis Association has announced no firm timetable, but officials have signaled strong interest after severe weather interruptions bedeviled the 2003 U.S. Open.

Suddenly, Brook's solution to keeping tennis dry and cool — a large moveable roof, shielding spectators and players from dampening rain or blistering sun — is perceived as Something That Probably Should Be Done.

In Melbourne, the 2004 Australian Open got under way this week with the world's top tennis players serving, stroking, and smashing on 19 outdoor courts and two retractable-roof stadiums. The Rod Laver Arena covers 47 acres and seats about 15,000 spectators; the Vodafone Arena covers 25 acres and seats about 10,000.

In the early rounds, both roofs stayed open under occasional dark clouds and mostly bright sunshine. Spectators lounged in shade at either end. Only fans at mid-court found themselves drenched with sunlight.

On the second day, a software glitch kept the Vodafone roof closed for anxious moments until it was unlocked, according to Shane Mates, an operations official. "It was a headache, but we fixed it," he said.

Roofs Helped Save Australian Open

Awash in players, coaches, and spectators, few tournament officials had time to ponder the history of sports architecture and the technology that drove the project. None seemed aware that Brook, a mild-mannered visitor in black leather sports coat and gray slacks, played a pivotal role in saving the Australian Open from extinction nearly 20 years ago.

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 Brook. "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 decided to relocate 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, they turned to a local firm, Peddle Thorp Architects. Brook was a 35-year-old member of a 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 featured only open-air stadiums or indoor fixed-roof arenas.

An Easy Answer

"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.

Stepping into a small, windowed room at one corner of the Laver Arena, Brook points 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 rock 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 U.S. Open's giant Arthur Ashe Stadium, which seats upward of 20,000 people, or the smaller Louis Armstrong Stadium?

"Yes, absolutely, " Brook said.