Louis II: What’s been gained and lost at the ambitious new Armstrong

by: Steve Tignor | August 31, 2018

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The US Open's new stadium couldn't be more different than its iconic predecessor. (Photos by Anita Aguilar)

NEW YORK—Venus Williams had just spent two hours running around in 100-degree heat, but she was positively giddy. Talking to ESPN’s Pam Shriver, the 38-year-old sounded as if she were a bubbly teenage rookie on tour again as she thanked the overflow crowd in the upper deck for helping pull her through her second-round match.

Two hours later, Juan Martin del Potro couldn’t stop grinning as he belted souvenir tennis balls into that same upper deck. That’s where his ever-fervent supporters—a small, undulating sea of blue-and-white in their Argentine football jerseys—had serenaded him to a straight-set win over Denis Kudla of Maryland. As more than one American has found out over the years, there’s no home-court advantage when you’re facing Delpo at the Open.

Twenty-four hours later, another crowd favorite from overseas, Gael Monfils, was holding court in the new stadium, though he was off to a slow start against Kei Nishikori. After watching him drop the first set 6-2, a fan in the rafters had had enough: “C’mawn, Mon-feels!” she yelled in an accent that can only be described as not-very-French.

In those three moments, it seemed to me that the new Louis Armstrong Stadium had officially been christened. Yes, the very first match in the arena had yielded a major upset, when Kaia Kanepi knocked off top seed Simona Halep on Monday. But it had taken a little longer for the spirit of the old stadium—call it upscale chaos, or Honey Deuce hysteria—to begin to echo through the new one.

Louis Armstrong Stadium hosted this year's Media Day at the US Open:

That’s good news for the US Open, because the new Armstrong is the crown jewel in its five-year renovation project, which is now complete and which has entirely reshaped—and improved—the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center. The stadium itself cost $600 million, and it took two years to obliterate the old Armstrong and raise the new one, which comes with a retractable roof, high walls that block out the sun, open spaces to let in the breeze, and its own food court and bar.

Like many modern baseball stadiums, the new Louis allows fans to wander (and shop, and eat) freely while still keeping an eye on the tennis. It also has a water fountain, which turned out to be the most popular amenity of all during the first four scorching days of this year’s Open; the lines for it stretched halfway across the arena.

Reviews from critics and fans—at least the ones I’ve heard from, and have overheard—have mostly been positive. With its first working week in the books, here’s a look at what Louis II gets right, and what could be better.


Thumbs up: New camera angle

Ninety-nine percent of tennis fans around the world will only experience the stadium through a television set. Unfortunately, that experience got off to a rocky start this week when the tournament put the end-court camera at the very top of the stadium—it felt as if you were watching the matches from a passing Goodyear blimp. Word got around on social media, and the USTA obviously picked up on it. On Wednesday, workers removed 16 seats behind the court and installed a camera at a new, normal level.

Could be better: Seating optics

The arena’s 14,000 seats are split into lower and upper bowls. Roughly speaking, the lower is reserved, and the upper is general admission and open to grounds passes. Predictably, the upper bowl has been more full than the lower. So far it doesn’t feel, the way it felt in the old Armstrong, that a single, unified crowd is watching a performance; now there’s a gulf between the players on court and their most passionate fans up top. In the Open’s defense, if you’re going to build a new stadium for $600 million, you’re probably going to have to find some ticket-buyers to help pay for it.

Thumbs up: Standing-room space between levels

The new Louis relies on “natural ventilation”—i.e., it’s open to the elements, which allowed designers to avoid having to install air-conditioning. This gives the arena a minimalist feel, and frees up space for fans to stand and watch. It’s a breakthrough for tennis: now spectators don’t have to imagine what’s going on as they wait for the next changeover to go to their seats.

Could be better: Making fans wait in the upper level

At the lower level, Louis lets customers watch tennis as they wait to go to their seats. Yet the tournament has opted not to do the same at the upper level. Despite the fact that fans at that height are well above the players’ sight-lines, they still must wait for a changeover to enter.

Thumbs up: No luxury suites

At 14,000 people, Armstrong’s capacity is similar to that of Wimbledon’s Centre Court, and 9,000 seats smaller than Ashe. It also comes without the two rows of luxury boxes that do so much to push the top-level seats in Ashe into the stratosphere. In an ideal world, Armstrong would be the largest stadium court at the open. With three matches during the day, and two at night, tickets for the lower bowl here should be popular. Just make sure you’re sitting on the shady side.

Could be better: View from the upper bowl

Armstrong’s upper-bowl is not as far away from the court as Ashe’s, but it’s steep, which means you’re still pretty high in the air and removed from the action. There are also very few seats behind the ends of the court, which are always the best in the house.

Thumbs up: Food

Hill Country, Fuku, Pat LaFrieda, Indian food, gourmet pizza: they’re all here, and more. Anyone who has tried to have lunch in the Open’s main food court knows how long the lines can get there; this should relieve some of that overcrowding.

Could be better: Architecture

The New York Times calls the exterior “boxy,” and that’s certainly accurate, though I like the orange slats that make up the walls, and which help control the wind. While the inside is appealingly open and spacious, the area around the court, with its blue bunting and copious corporate logos in white lettering, essentially looks like Ashe. The old Louis and Grandstand had their own designs and personalities—will this one ever feel similarly unique?

For now, the most promising aspect of the new Louis is how it shifts the tournament toward the evening sessions, which have always been the Open’s signature strength and selling point. For the first time, two matches have been scheduled there each night. By the end of the week, those night sessions seemed to be giving the stadium an identity: The new Graveyard of Champions. Maybe it’s the noise, maybe it’s the unfamiliar surroundings, maybe it’s just coincidence, but first Halep, then Garbiñe Muguruza, then Caroline Wozniacki were all bounced out of Armstrong this week.

The Graveyard, the House of Chaos, the Honey Deuce Hotel: whatever you want to call it, the spirit of the Open lives on in Louis II.

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