By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. Open's retractable roof for massive Arthur Ashe Stadium will take five minutes to open or close and could be ready for 2016, officials said on Monday during the opening day of the season's last grand slam.
The decision to quiet the clamor for a roof followed five successive years of staging a Monday finish to the championships due to inclement weather and was announced earlier this month.
Officials held a news conference as the August 26-September 9 U.S. Open was getting underway to reveal more details about the $550 million overhaul of the National Tennis Center.
"It's been a long haul," Gordon Smith, executive director of the U.S. Tennis Association, said. "We have been working on nothing less than a transformation of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for several years."
Being able to cover the main court at the U.S. Open brings the championship in line with Wimbledon and the Australian Open, which both have retractable roofs over center court. The French Open has already announced plans to cover its main court.
Opened in 1997, Arthur Ashe Stadium has a 22,500 capacity, making it by far the largest tennis arena in the world, and covering it posed unique problems.
"The complexities included the existing structure, the soil's condition and also the weather this time of year," architect Matt Rosetti said.
Rosetti said "abysmal" soil conditions contributed to the challenge, noting that the soil in the Flushing Meadows site in the borough of Queens was poor as it used to be used as the ash dump for Manhattan.
Officials also wanted to retain the open, park-like ambience of the Tennis Center, requiring a design that would allow for a wide opening above the stadium for nice weather.
"We wanted to be consistent with the idea of playing tennis in the outdoor environment," said Rosetti. "Tennis in the park."
The re-design also calls for a rebuilt, 15,000-seat Louis Armstrong Stadium with its own retractable roof and a new 8,000-seat Grandstand Court that will be moved across the complex.
An extra half an acre of ground obtained from the city helped the USTA design another plaza area around the new Grandstand and access for fans to view new practice courts.
The redesign of the Tennis Center, which opened in 1978, will also help with the flow of spectators across the grounds by eliminating the congestion caused by the previous proximity of the three main courts.
Executive director Smith said that after the project was completed by 2018, the USTA would be able to accommodate 10,000 additional fans per day session for the first eight days of the tournament.
"It will be a greatly improved tournament experience for the great mass of our fans," Smith said/.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)