NEW YORK -- A sports venue is not like a highway or a bridge. The goal is not to build something reasonable, but to build something that's never been built before -- heck, that shouldn't be built. Until present-day Madison Square Garden was built, few considered watching a basketball game on top of a busy train station. Old Yankee Stadium lured twice as many baseball fans to its gates at a time when the country was dead broke. In February, MetLife Stadium will achieve the ultimate pipe dream: A northeastern Super Bowl held outdoors in the dead of winter.
Still, when it came to New York-sized ambition, no one in sports had it quite like the United States Tennis Association. Its modus operandi was Manifest Destiny. Without that sense of purpose, the U.S. Open doesn't go from a niche sporting event to one of the biggest on the planet.
The USTA could've stopped its own progressive march after uprooting the tournament from its country club environs in Forest Hills to its current home on city park land hard by the old World's Fair grounds in Flushing Meadow, but no. The USTA kept moving forward. It sliced the old Singer Bowl, one of the centerpieces of the World's Fair, into two Siamese stadiums, naming the bigger twin after a black jazz icon. Then it built an even bigger stadium -- the biggest ever -- right next to it and named that one after a black tennis icon that died from AIDS-related complications. Then, it named the entire campus after a gay icon.
From night play to equal prize, the USTA pushed the envelope like no other, and the on-court geniuses it spawned like so many Model Ts followed in that revolutionary spirit. Now? Not so much. For the first time in 40 years, an American man failed to crack the top 20 of the ATP singles rankings. Last month at Wimbledon, an American man failed to reach the third round for the first time in 101 years. The USTA's forward march is over; American tennis is walking in place.
But Thursday, when the USTA revealed a $550 million plan to modernize Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the deficit of foresight at the top of American tennis' governing body became woefully apparent. No amount of self-congratulatory speeches, soaring violin music and sunny 3-D animations that omit the biggest reason for this undertaking (the rain) could obscure the desperate state of affairs.
That's not to say that the proposed improvements aren't impressive. The best among them -- the retractable roofs for Ashe and Armstrong stadiums -- were long considered engineering impossibilities; the ground below was thought too soft to support the additional weight of one cover, let alone two. It's just that, to hear USTA managing director Danny Zausner tell it, the face-lifting could have started as early as four years ago if the USTA hadn't initially passed on Rossetti, the architectural firm behind the current tennis center renovation. And Rossetti was the firm that designed and engineered Ashe Stadium in the first place.
The project (which also includes relocating a new and improved Grandstand court to the opposite corner of the grounds and creating more spectator space around the practice courts) will seem so stale when they're ultimately completed in 2018. By then, Wimbledon -- repeat, Wimbledon -- will not only have had a retractable roof over Centre Court for nine years, but might also be a year away from adding another roof over Court 1 if their recently-announced remodeling plans go as scheduled. The Australian Open could have a third show court under cover by 2016. Was the USTA thinking one step ahead while in overhaul mode and giving any thought to covering the new Grandstand?
"You really had to ask that question?" said USTA executive director Gordon Smith with a nervous smile. "It's being thought about. I'll simply say it's not part of the plan between now and 2018 for this project. Is it being considered? Yes, it's being considered."
This is what ambition sounds like now in American tennis. The only great hopes that the USTA has now is that the city-issued bonds it will need to help fund this project will come tax-free, to help keep the costs of the project down. There are no more big, bold bets on the future -- just punts and hedges. The new Billie Jean King National Tennis Center isn't a landmark for the future. It's a monument to the past, when American tennis dared to dream of doing something it had no business doing -- dominating the sport in every conceivable way -- did it big, and watched gleefully as the rest of the world suddenly struggled to keep pace. Clearly, those days are through.