With crowds totalling more than 700,000, the US Open is the highest-attended annual sporting event in the world – but the start of this year's competition in New York yesterday underlined once again how far it is lagging behind the sport's three other Grand Slam tournaments.
As a rainstorm burst over Flushing Meadows just 90 minutes after the start of play, officials were having to field what has become an annual barrage of questions as to why the United States Tennis Association has no immediate plans to install a retractable roof.
Bad weather has forced the year's final Grand Slam tournament into a third week for the last four years in a row. Yesterday was a familiar story. Although play resumed by 3pm – enabling Andy Murray to get on court to start his match against Alex Bogomolov – there had been a rain delay of more than two hours after the heavens opened shortly after 12.30. The tournament does not use any covers on its courts, so drying machines have to be used to clear the surface water when the weather relents.
By the time the French Open completes its planned retractable roof over Court Philippe Chatrier in 2017, the US Open will be the only Grand Slam tournament without any covered courts. The Australian Open has two retractable roofs and will install a third by 2015. Wimbledon has a cover on Centre Court, which was used on nine of this year's 13 playing days, and looks likely to put a roof on Court One soon.
The USTA has done feasibility studies into a roof for the cavernous 23,700-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium but says that technology does not yet exist to do the job. The problem is the weight of the stadium and the impact it would have on the ground beneath it. One solution would be to erect a separate structure around the stadium, but it is unlikely that such a project would win planning approval.
There are plans to rebuild the 10,000-seat Louis Armstrong Stadium, which would be constructed with provision for a future roof. "We're going to have a roof one day," Jon Vegosen, the USTA's chairman and president, said. "I just can't tell you when."
Another reason for the Monday finishes is the much-criticised scheduling on its final weekend. CBS, which broadcasts the closing stages, loves "Super Saturday", which features the women's final and the two men's semi-finals. Not only do the players complain about not having a day of rest before the Sunday final, but the scheduling also allows for no leeway if the weather is bad. It will change next year, with a break of one day between the men's semi-finals and final, though it has yet to be decided if there will be a Sunday or Monday finish.
The last four Monday finals have had a financial cost to the USTA, which has had to pay undisclosed sums back to CBS. But Gordon Smith, the USTA's chief executive, insisted: "The amount of money we've lost by not having a roof and the amount we might make by adding a roof is negligible compared to the cost of adding a roof."
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