When tennis's U.S. Open begins Monday, television viewers will be treated to endless aerial shots of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the much-heralded behemoth towering over the National Tennis Center in Queens, N.Y. Broadcasters will murmur appreciatively about the court, as they have since it opened in 1997. The New York Times' architecture critic Herbert Muschamp has called it a "gem."
It's not a gem. Arthur Ashe Stadium is a disaster, possibly the worst sports venue in America. Some stadiums are unfriendly to fans. Some are disliked by players. And some come across poorly on television. Arthur Ashe Stadium accomplishes all three at once.
The sheer size of Ashe makes it a miserable place to watch tennis. With a capacity of 23,157, it's the biggest tennis stadium in the world. But that just means it has more bad seats than any other arena. While the best tennis venues provide a sense of intimacy, Ashe's double-decker stack of luxury boxes, located immediately above the courtside seats, pushes everyone else higher, making fans in the upper deck feel as if they're watching tennis through the wrong end of a telescope.
Just how bad is it? Fans in the depressingly designated Row Z at the very top of Ashe, peering at a court a fraction of the size of a baseball diamond, sit 120 feet in the air, higher even than their counterparts at neighboring Shea Stadium. Meanwhile, Wimbledon's Centre Court packs just over 13,000 fans into an arena scarcely higher than the luxury-box level at Ashe.
Absurdly, a U.S. Tennis Association fact sheet claims that "individual seating, increased restrooms and increased concession stands are among the most visible differences between Arthur Ashe Stadium and its predecessor, Louis Armstrong Stadium." Here's one more: The old, unloved Armstrong stadium—the biggest in tennis prior to Ashe—only rose to the point where Ashe's upper deck begins. That means at least half the spectators in Ashe now sit higher than the worst nosebleed seat the Open had to offer five years ago.
Worse, because the upper deck is so far from the action, Open apparatchiks allow fans in Ashe to leave their seats and move around during play. As a result, spectators in the upper deck generally glimpse Pete Sampras or Venus Williams only when they're not staring at sunburned, hot-dog-toting fans trying to find their seats. Upper-deck denizens, incidentally, tend to be rank-and-file USTA members, season-ticket holders, or other tennis enthusiasts (like myself) who go to the U.S. Open every year and should be spreading the good word about the sport. But many have come to loathe its principal U.S. venue. Some now spend their time entirely on the outer courts.
If Ashe were packed to the rafters, then maybe you could justify the USTA's decision to build this monstrosity. But even on the U.S. Open's final weekend, when the stadium is routinely announced as being sold out and no important matches are being played on the outer courts, Ashe is rarely filled with fans. No-shows may be a fact of life in sports, but to have them so consistently at the climax of America's premier tennis event says a lot about its principal venue.
It's not just fans who feel alienated by Arthur Ashe Stadium. Players dislike the place, too. Some have said the court surface is the slowest at the whole tennis center. Many more hate the wind that whips through the large players' entrance at the stadium's north end. Lleyton Hewitt, last year's men's champion, compared Ashe unfavorably to provincial Australian courts after winning a match in 2000, saying, "It was a nightmare out there, the toughest conditions I've ever played in. … It felt like a hurricane was behind me at one end."
Then there's the dulling effect Arthur Ashe Stadium has on televised matches. While the typically roaring, buzzing crowds at Wimbledon or the French Open build the drama of a good match for those watching at home, Ashe's vastness and inevitable vacant seats—especially in the corporate-junket territory close to the court—diminish crowd noise and make even taut, hard-fought contests seem less intense. A casual TV viewer, looking at the crowd surge behind a golfer on the 18th hole of a major, must think the fans can't get enough of the sport. The same fan watching the U.S. Open's Super Saturday might believe it's not worth attending the final of a major tennis tournament. In the long run, it's not an impression tennis can afford to give.