A Palace Fit for Queens

Monday, September 02, 2013 /by
Photos by Anita Aguilar
Photos by Anita Aguilar

NEW YORK—“Louis Armstrong Stadium has got to be the worst-stewarded court in tennis. People always moving around. Players always getting annoyed.”

A British tennis journalist tweeted these words of frustration while he watched Andy Murray play inside Armstrong, the U.S. Open's second-largest stadium, last week. You could understand the writer’s need to vent. The stewards—known as ushers in the States—on that court have been famous for three decades for not running the tightest ship in the tennis business. For 16 of those years, when Armstrong was the much larger main stadium on the grounds, and contained many more awful nosebleed seats, those ushers were also famous for letting people move down in exchange, essentially, for whatever was in their wallet. Armstrong has never been the most pristine of sporting palaces.

But for any longtime American tennis fan, it’s our imperfect palace. The seats are cramped, the wind swirls inside, and there are no architectural or decorative touches to please the eye. Designed and built in minimalist, modernist 1964, it’s just a concrete bowl with enormous steel light fixtures towering over it. And, as the Brit said above, someone is always moving around. Armstrong has what city planners would now call “a circulation problem.” Outside of Rome, it may be the most restless tennis court in the world.

To start, it's not easy to get in; the entrances that let fans up from below are narrow by today’s standards. And once you are inside, it’s not easy to find a place to sit down; the concrete pathways are cramped. During changeovers, this can lead to a stadium-wide scrum as fans, after waiting in long lines below, find themselves with less than a minute to scan the arena for a few decent empty spaces. As the umpire calls time, you see a lot of confused faces and last-second dashes. It’s not surprising that a British journalist would find this ad hoc system appalling. Wimbledon mans the entrances to its show courts with ushers from the London Fire Brigade. Their military-style uniforms alone are enough to keep you from trying to sneak around them—or offer them a bribe.

Most of us agree that tearing down the Open's intimate third stadium, the Grandstand, would be a tragedy, or at least an unfortunate by-product of the tournament's modernization plan. The USTA once had Armstrong slated for demolition as well, but more recently it has been granted a reprieve. The latest Flushing Meadows blueprint has it being revamped, re-enlarged, and topped with a retractable roof. After sitting in Armstrong this week—the Grandstand and Armstrong were originally one arena, called the Singer Bowl—I can’t say that I would be crushed if it were torn down. The sunset over Manhattan can be beautiful in the evening, and the place obviously beats Ashe Stadium; but you don’t get close enough to feel like you’re inside the action here, the way you can when you have a good seat in the Grandstand.

Yet Armstrong has a strange appeal, one that makes me wonder if memories and nostalgia don’t ultimately trump all questions of aesthetics and taste. Whether we love them at first or not, we get used to the buildings around us. After a time, they're no longer made of concrete and steel, but of the associations from the past that we have with them. The arena where I attended sporting events as a kid, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, was one of the most reviled, as well as dangerous, in in the history of arenas everywhere. But once the Vet was blown up, everyone who had been there began talking about it with a nostalgic fondness that was only partly ironic. It was an abomination, but it was Philly’s abomination.

It isn’t Armstrong’s architecture or ambiance that’s appealing, at least not to me. It’s the fact that, for someone my age, it is the U.S. Open. Fans a generation older than me may still feel that way about the old horseshoe stadium at Forest Hills. Those younger will feel the same about Ashe—yes, even a hideous corporate monument like Ashe will inspire nostalgia someday. Armstrong lives on as a reminder of a grittier, more chaotic time in the city's history.

When I sit in Armstrong, the late-afternoon sunlight still hits the stadium’s northeast corner the way it did the day John McEnroe ended Bjorn Borg’s career in 1981. The courtside player boxes are in the same spots they were when Donald Trump sat in them to watch Jimmy Connors beat Aaron Krickstein in 1991. The tunnel that leads out is the same one that Chris Evert walked toward after her last Open match, in 1989. That spot in the back? That's where Pete Sampras hurled in '96. (See what I mean about memories trumping taste?) Armstrong has had reconstructive surgery, as well as cosmetic surgery, but you can still see and sense its history, just under the surface, in the bones of the building.

It’s fitting, I guess, that Armstrong was an accidental home for the Open. It was discovered serendipitously by then-USTA president Slew Hester in the winter of 1977. Flying into La Guardia, he happened to look down and see the old Singer Bowl, which had been renamed Louis Armstrong Stadium in 1973 after the jazz trumpeter and sometime Queens resident. The abandoned arena, built for the 1964 World’s Fair, was covered in snow. Struck by the beauty of the scene, Hester thought it might be the right place to move the Open, which had outgrown its old home at the cramped West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. A Mississippi oilman by trade, Hester’s job was to find gold in unpromising locations; to, as he put it, “drop a dart in the dark and drill.”

That’s how the Open ended up at Flushing Meadows, though the place hasn’t been without its drawbacks. It was built on landfill, which is one reason that Ashe and Armstrong have never had roofs—until now, it had been assumed that the soil was too soft to support their weight. But while the USTA has struggled at Flushing in recent years, Hester was able to split the Singer Bowl, build 20 other courts, and have the whole thing ready to host a Grand Slam in less than a year. That rush job partly explains why there were no bells and whistles in the design, as well as the jerry-rigged quality of its construction. To split the Singer Bowl, it was necessary to make Armstrong’s concrete bowl perilously steep. “If a drunk falls out of the 75th row,” said Hester, who didn’t mind a cocktail himself, “he’ll land on the service line.”

That old bowl can still serve the Open well in a pinch. Today, as I walked out of the press room, I was nearly leveled by a herd of fans running at top speed toward Armstrong. I had no idea what it was about, but I should have guessed: After a long rain delay, Roger Federer’s match had been moved there. The line to get in would eventually stretch off the grounds and toward another relic of the ’64 World’s Fair, the Unisphere. 

And why wouldn’t people be willing to wait? Inside was the sight of Federer, who hadn’t been sent to Armstrong in seven years, making his graceful moves from up close. So close that you could, on this humid day, see him sweat—a lot. Federer's match with Tommy Robredo, appropriate to the atmosphere, was a dogfight rather than a dance, one that Federer didn't win. The fans may have been disappointed by that, but no amount of bad ushering can ruin the memory of the day.

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