NEW YORK -- The roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, three years in the making, might be the talk -- and ultimately the savior and star -- of this year's event, but the toupee hasn't radically altered the stadium's structure nearly as much as the massive renovation that has transformed roughly half of the US Open's 45 acres.
"This is impressive," said one fan waiting with a companion to enter the new stand-alone Grandstand Stadium built into the southwest end of the grounds. "I thought they blew it when they decided to get rid of the old one, but this is something. It's pretty neat."
The Grandstand is a sunken bowl surrounded by 8,125 seats. It didn't take savvy fans long on a humid day, when the mercury hit the mid-90s, to find the significant band of seats on the extreme west side that offer a US Open commodity in shade that's as rare as a male American singles contender these days.
Anchoring the southwest corner of the grounds, the Grandstand has food concessions at ground level, in the shadow of its bowl. Walkways flow from the Grandstand to the south plaza, which in years past has often been overcrowded. But all the courts on the south side have been moved back about 30 feet, allowing for a significant expansion of the nearby plaza. That includes the space around the fountains and the statue of Arthur Ashe.
The big dig also enabled the USTA to create a wide boulevard that now fronts the south-side courts. Those courts were all rebuilt with permanent seating and slick, aluminum-skinned entries that create a great sense of intimacy for those watching -- and playing -- inside.
This enhancement underscores a noteworthy feature of the tournament. The US Open has always tried to play up its egalitarian appeal. That effort doesn't always pass the smell test. How could it? But the improvements to the field courts -- and it began with the creation of the practice courts 4-6 complex a year ago -- have in effect given every court that much more prestige.
Now, every court feel a little bit like a center court. That's a significant achievement.
There has been a cost as well. You no longer get the feeling that on certain courts, the match you're watching is taking place in a public park.
As one veteran journalist put it, "It feels like there's an awful lot of concrete and steel out there."
That old parks-and-rec feeling may be gone, but the ghosts and traditions of the US Open pasts are easily conjured and find ways to live on. There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth when the USTA announced that the beloved old Grandstand appended to the side of Louis Armstrong stadium would be removed to be replaced by the new one that is kitty-corner on the grounds.
The new Grandstand certainly is different, but it's a fair guess that some of those shade-hoggers were the same characters who in years past staked out the west stand of the old Grandstand for the same reason. By the way, the old Grandstand is still in use, under the forlorn name ... "Old Grandstand." It will be torn down along with the rest of Armstrong after this tournament.
Courts 11 and 12 more or less stand alone in the center of the grounds, between the original food court near Armstrong and the south plaza fountains. The single, tall permanent stand on the west side of No. 11 now has a mirror image stand on the east side of 12, enveloping the courts in a micro-environment. But when the wind is right, rich and pungent smoke from the nearby hamburger stand still wafts over Court 11 -- just like it did when Louis Armstrong was the only stadium on the site, and area was occupied by Court No. 1.
Back then, the burgers were cooked on open charcoal fires very near the court. The players sometimes coughed and literally choked on the greasy smoke, dispensing it from their vision with a wave of a hand as they prepared to receive serve..
Over the years, the old Grandstand became famous for producing great upsets and electrifying close five-set battles. The first match on the new Grandstand featured a 20-year-old American, No. 146 Taylor Townsend, clashing with former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. Townsend, calling upon all kinds of lefty ju-ju, won the first set and took Wozniacki to 4-4 in the third before she capitulated.
The new Grandstand didn't quite deliver the upset Grandstand faithful probably hoped for. Give it time. After all, the old one isn't even gone yet.