Kiss goodbye to heady days in the Louis Armstrong

A new stadium is set to provide a dazzling showcase for the US Open
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Organisers of the US Open in New York trust that a new main stadium costing $234m will finally persuade the tournament's critics that a bright golden haze on Flushing Meadow does not necessarily relate to garbage.

Structural work is complete, and the 21,700-seat stadium is on schedule to become the showpiece of next year's championships. It stands about 50 yards from the current Stadium Court, which, unlike Wimbledon's original Court No 1, has not been condemned to be reduced to rubble. Few hurrahs are expected on that score.

Although renowned for dramatic matches, the US Open is widely regarded as the ugly sister of the four Grand Slam championships because of its poor amenities.

Flushing Meadow-Corona Park formerly was a dump for the burning of Brooklyn's rubbish - F Scott Fitzgerald called it "a valley of ashes" in The Great Gatsby - and reminders of its past come in whiffs from the US Open, especially on steamier days.

Big advances at the world's other leading venues have accentuated the US Open's image problem.

The Australian Open has blossomed since moving from the Melbourne suburbs to a magnificent National Tennis Centre in the city in 1988. The French Tennis Federation rebuilt the main stand of the Centre Court at Stade Roland Garros in Paris and created a splendid new Court No 1, dedicated to Suzanne Lenglen.

And Wimbledon's 11,000-seat new Court No 1 will be the focal point of next year's championships as the All England Club marks the completion of stage one of a long-term development programme.

The US Open is making an effort to catch up, but the present main stadium, with its dodgy plumbing and unreliable elevators, will provide centre stage for a 19th and final year during the course of the coming fortnight.

Although the arena will continue to be used, it will be renovated and downsized from 20,000 seats to 10,000 after the 1997 championships. The adjacent Grandstand Court, which seats 5,500, will remain intact.

As part of the United States Tennis Association's lease with the City of New York, 24.9 acres have been added to the original 21.6 acres of the site. When the expansion programme is completed, the total number of courts will have increased by 10 to 47, nine of which are indoors.

The biggest selling point of the project is the fact that the new stadium has been designed specifically for tennis. That could not be said of its predecessor, a steeply banked human ant-hill of an arena built for exhibitions and concerts long before the likes of Connors and McEnroe made themselves heard.

Louis Armstrong Stadium was converted in 1978 when the National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadow materialised in the public park in the borough of Queens, close to Shea Stadium, home of the Mets, and within earshot of La Guardia airport.

The late W E "Slew" Hester, an oilman from Jackson, Mississippi, was president of the USTA at the time it was decided that the championships had outgrown the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills, New York. In January 1977, Hester was on a flight approaching La Guardia when he glimpsed the derelict Louis Armstrong Stadium in a snow-covered Flushing Meadow.

The stadium, built by the Singer Sewing Machine Company for the 1964- 65 New York World's Fair and originally called the Singer Bowl, became the property of the city when the fair closed and was later renamed Louis Armstrong Stadium for the great man of jazz, who lived in the district.

By 1974, the structure was in disrepair and the city, lacking the funds to renovate it, decided to close the stadium. Then in flew "Slew" with the USTA's offer to underwrite the cost of transforming the site into a National Tennis Center which could be used by the public for 10 months of the year.

The name Louis Armstrong Stadium was retained, and will continue down the scale. The task of renovating the structure and halving the capacity is expected to be completed in time for the 1998 championships.

"The facility has served us very well, but it is outdated," Lester Snyder, chairman of the US Open Committee, says. "We don't want to continue having some of the maintenance problems that we currently have. If we reduce the upper weight that will help us tremendously, as it affects the lower part of the stadium."

"I was looking for somebody and I got a bit of a nose bleed up there," joked David Markin, vice-chairman of the US Open project, emphasising that the new stadium will have a much more gentle slope, so that even the top seats will have a much better view.

It has to be admitted that the steepness of Louis Armstrong Stadium lends itself to some spectacular television coverage, especially when a capacity crowd generates a characteristically raucous atmosphere.

On such occasions the spectators have a wonderful time, even those on the rim of the bowl - they may not have the best view of the shots, but they almost certainly noticed that Agassi was thin on top when he still sported the big hair.

John Roberts

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