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."