NEW YORK - Like an alien ship from "Independence Day," the new National Tennis Center rises over Flushing Meadow Park, a concrete bowl hovering on blue steel supports above a flat, unadorned shell of red brick and glass.
The United States Tennis Association hopes that its $234 million stadium, set to debut next year with the 117th U.S. Open, will be the centerpiece of the finest tennis center anywhere.
It certainly will be the world's biggest, with 23,500 seats in a main arena equipped with courtside boxes, two rings of luxury suites and spacious individual seats.
The worst seat is just 15 feet farther away from the court than in the current 20,000-seat Louis Armstrong Stadium, according to architect Gino Rosetti of Birmingham, Mich.-based Rosetti Associates Architects.
"(The USTA) had maybe the worst stadium center of the Grand Slam tournaments," Rosetti said. "Their charge to us was to make it the best in the world."
Few would disagree that the new facility will be an improvement over the Open's current home in the Flushing Meadow section of Queens.
Armstrong Stadium, built hastily over several months in 1978, has long been derided by players, fans and the media as charmless, cramped and inconvenient. It is made of concrete, and jets from nearby LaGuardia Airport roar overhead.
Can't match Forest Hills
"It's got to be better than this place," said Eric Kalin of Morristown, N.J., gazing at the new stadium as he arrived for a night session last week.
Armstrong Stadium also suffers by comparison with the charming grass courts of the West Side Tennis Club in the nearby neighborhood of Forest Hills, where the Open was played from 1924 until 1977.
The new stadium "can't compare to the old Forest Hills," said Irv Taub of Port Washington, who along with his wife, Carol, has been attending the Open off and on for 40 years. But "it's got to be an improvement over this."
One New York architect and urban design professor, however, isn't so sure. USTA officials may claim the new stadium is state-of-the-art, but Allen Swerdlowe calls it just plain artless.
"It looks cheap to me," said Swerdlowe, who teaches at The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. "Like everything else in New York, things are based on budgets. They're done quickly. They're done with very little understanding of context."
Swerdlowe likened the structure to one built by a child using two incompatible sets of construction toys.
"It's a very modern stadium inside a postmodern shell," he said.
Tennis journalist Bud Collins agrees. Not only does the stadium "look like a municipal power plant," it's also oversized.
"It's too big. It's as simple as that," Collins said. "You're at least 7,000 over what you should be. ... But, as I say, they're going to have marvelous luxury facilities, and the USTA will be there to entertain themselves and their international guests."
More tickets to sell
The new stadium also will allow the USTA to sell more tickets to an increasingly popular event. When the Open came to Flushing Meadow, the USTA expected attendance of about 250,000 for the whole tournament, said David Meehan, who is overseeing construction for the USTA. But attendance was 275,300 in 1978 and has risen ever since, breaking the 500,000 barrier in 1992.
With the new stadium and with Armstrong Stadium reduced to 10,000 seats by removal of the upper deck, a grandstand and new outer courts, the new tennis center will be able to accommodate up to 700,000 fans, Meehan said.
The stadium was designed after interviews with players, their entourages, the media, corporate patrons and tennis officials, Rosetti said. Sight lines are optimized with a steeply canted, octagonal design that brings upper deck spectators as close to the court as possible and minimizes neck craning, he said.
Disabled access also has been improved, acoustics augmented and all the outer courts will be laid out on the same axis as the stadium court, according to Rosetti. A north-south orientation was chosen to give ideal light at 3 p.m. on Labor Day, the tournament's traditional midpoint.
The new center, originally budgeted at $150 million, is being paid for by USTA funds and a private, tax-exempt bond offering.
For all but 60 days a year, the tennis center's courts will be available to the public for recreational use, with all operating and maintenance costs paid by the USTA.
That hasn't stopped Mayor Rudolph Giuliani from criticizing the USTA, saying the organization is charging fans for stadium cost overruns. The price of choice box seats will increase up to 100 percent next year, with top seats costing $50,000 for the tournament.
Collins claims the new stadium represents the triumph of money over the interests of the average fan. He says Armstrong Stadium is perfectly adequate for the two weeks it is used each year, and the money spent on the swanky new facility could have been better spent on youth programs.
"I think it's very much antithetical to what the USTA was founded for, which is to promote the sport of tennis in the United States," he said. "(USTA officials) get penthouse envy. They go to Wimbledon, French and the Australian and they want to have the best place."
Jana Novotna, who has played every U.S. Open since 1987, said she doesn't care what the new stadium looks like or how big it is.
"The important thing is that we get better facilities," she said. "For how much money they're spending, why don't they go all the way and make it nice for everybody?"
Tennis Center at a glance.
A look at the new National Tennis Center:
-- Cost: $234 million, financed with USTA funds and money raised through a $150 million tax-exempt bond offering.
-- Capacity: 23,500 in the main stadium, including courtside boxes, luxury suites and individual seats.
-- Amenities: Expanded food and souvenir stands, 10 times as many restrooms as the current stadium, improved acoustics and handicapped access.
-- Other courts: The current stadium court, Louis Armstrong Stadium, will have its upper deck removed and its capacity trimmed to 10,000. The current grandstand court, which seats 5,000, will be left intact. Also 24 outer courts, with field seating for a total of 9,800, 11 new practice courts and nine indoor courts.
-- Access: The National Tennis Center will be available for public recreational use 300 days a year.
-- Opening: Scheduled for August 1997. Renovation of Armstrong Stadium is scheduled for completion by August 1998.
-- Architect: Rosetti Associates Architects, Birmingham, Mich.
- Associated Press