Posted August 29, 2016
Earlier this month the new 62,500-square-foot, 6,500-ton retractable roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center – home of the U.S. Open tennis championships – went to work in front of a crowd of journalists and tennis royalty, culminating a three-year engineering project to give the world’s largest tennis stadium a lid. The group waited just five minutes and 12 seconds for the translucent fabric (polytetrafluoroethylene, also known as PTFE) covering the stadium to part and reveal sunny blue skies over Queens, N.Y.
The $150 million roof is one of the new stars at the final and most exciting Grand Slam event on the tennis calendar, getting underway this week. Now, thanks to the new state-of-the-art retractable roof, no one will get rained out. (Last year’s men’s singles final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer was delayed for nearly three and a half hours because of rain.)
Every year the U.S. Open draws more than 700,000 tennis fans to Queens. For more than two weeks the U.S. Open grounds are abuzz with live music, great food and people from around the globe watching some of the most amazing tennis in the world. The atmosphere is – well, electric.
The energy generated by fans, players and the world’s media isn’t the only thing juicing the 900-acre tennis center. The U.S. Open, like all facets of American life, runs on energy – energy that illuminates courts, keeps crowds cool during the hot days of late August and early September and brings fans and players from around the world to New York.
Tennis Under the Lights
Part of what makes the Open’s atmosphere so energizing (and some would argue, downright uproarious) are the night matches. On Aug. 27, 1975, the tournament staged its first night-time matches. The French Open experimented with night tennis in 1969, but the U.S. Open has best exemplified tennis under the lights for more than four decades.
Newly crowned Arthur Ashe Stadium certainly will amp up the Open’s lighting. More than 360 LED sports lights replaced the former light towers and will provide sharper visibility for competitive play. The new lighting technology also will help illuminate the roof and the stadium and form part of a nightly light show scheduled between the tournament’s two evening matches. The stadium also has a completely new sound system and four giant screens around the facility. All require a lot of electricity.
Then there’s the energy required by the new roof. The mechanization system alone on Arthur Ashe Stadium is powered by 600 horsepower motors—almost twice the amount of horsepower in a V8 Hemi engine. Also, the 23,771 fans sitting in the seats will be kept cool by a chilled water ventilation system when the roof is closed, and they can recharge their cellphones at any one of the Chase-sponsored charging stations around the grounds.
Game. Set. Get to the Match.
While the U.S. Open encourages fans to use public transportation to get to the matches, you can’t really expect world No. 7 Rafael Nadal to just schlep his way in on the nearest bus. He’s more likely to roll up in a Mercedes-Benz (premium unleaded gasoline included?), the “Official Vehicle” of the U.S. Open.
In 2015, players journeyed approximately 2.15 million miles by air and 134,000 miles on the ground to get to the Open. In addition, more than 9,000 employees travelled to work the 2015 event.
Advantage – Oil Byproducts
Some of the tennis world’s less obvious energy connections are hidden in plain view at Arthur Ashe Stadium. In fact, tennis’ top superstars and their fans need look no further than the court below their feet, the rackets in the players’ hands or the bright yellow ball whizzing past them at 100-plus mph.
Let’s start with the humble tennis ball, the thing that everyone watches back and forth, all day and night, throughout the Open. A total of 70,000 Wilson tennis balls are used each year. That includes all balls used during practices, qualifying rounds and main-draw matches. Each one is made of high-temperature, highly pressurized vulcanized rubber, glue and felt that can take a pounding and keep on bouncing. Synthetic rubber, which makes up approximately 70 percent of all rubber, is made from petrochemical feedstocks – AKA: crude oil.
Rackets have come a long way, baby, since the days of wood (think: Don Budge and Rod Laver) and steel (remember Jimmy Connors’ shiny Tensor model?). Just about everyone at this year’s Open will be holding a product made from petroleum.
Today’s rackets are developed with a wide range of materials designed to maximize performance and durability. The most popular are graphite composite rackets, which are fabricated with laminated carbon fiber, a material made from petroleum that’s also is used in the airframes of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Racket strings are made of synthetic, petroleum-based materials including nylon, polyamide and other polymers – quite an evolution from when strings were made of animal intestines or “catgut.”
Of course, long-gone is the era when a top player might show up at the Open with a main racket and a backup in case the primary one broke or snapped one of those gut strings. Today’s players haul in so many rackets they could almost open their own small shop. Andy Roddick, a former No. 1 and current coach, says he usually traveled to a tournament with eight freshly strung rackets, while Roger Federer reportedly goes through nine rackets in the course of a single match.
Finally, there’s the Open’s distinctive blue court: it’s made of a cushioned surface called DecoTurf. A total of six layers of acrylic, silica and rubber—feedstocks that all started out as crude oil or were transformed thanks to oil—just three millimeters thick is applied via squeegee and topped with three more coats of fine rubber to create a smooth, even surface.
Here’s another energy link: You could say the U.S. Open as we know it today owes its existence to the oil industry. U.S. Tennis Association President William “Slew” Hester was the visionary who moved the Open from nearby Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows in 1978. Hester also was an oilman. Tennis magazine:
Hester was a “bluff, beady-eyed, cigar-chomping, wildcat oilman and scion of a state political family. Hester was also one of those rarities in the tennis establishment at that time: A gentleman entrepreneur and an energetic force for change.”
An energetic force for change? That’s a pretty good description of the energy industry itself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.