Saying Goodbye to Louis Armstrong Stadium and the Grandstand

Next year will be the last year of play in Louis Armstrong Stadium.
Next year will be the last year of play in Louis Armstrong Stadium.

Recently, the trend in New York sports is to close down old stadiums, demolish them, and replace them with new ones. In 2008, both the Yankees and Mets left their old homes, with the Yankees moving across the street and the Mets moving to another section of their vast parking lot. The year after, the Giants and Jets followed suit, moving to a building that signified a more equal partnership between the two teams than the old one. The New York Red Bulls were also affected by this closure and moved to a new stadium in Harrison, New Jersey. The Nets moved from New Jersey into Brooklyn, which is where the Islanders will soon move as well. And who could forget the demolitions of the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field?

Stadium replacement has touched all but two of New York’s sports teams in the past decade or so. In 2015, it will touch New York’s tennis scene, as well, as Louis Armstrong Stadium and the Grandstand are scheduled to be replaced as part of the US Open’s grand–and honestly, much-needed–makeover.

The single building that contains two stadia actually began life as one of the main attractions of the 1964 World’s Fair. Robert Moses needed a showpiece stadium, one that could hold large crowds, host big events such as concerts and sports, and be free to the public. Thus, the Singer Bowl, an oblong octagonal stadium, was born. Interestingly enough, the Singer Bowl was one of the first examples of corporate sponsorships of stadia, as it was named for the Singer Sewing company, which displayed some of its innovative products inside.

This aerial photo belies the origins of Louis Armstrong and the Grandstand as one octagonal stadium. From stadiumsusa.com.

After the Fair, the Singer Bowl gained a second life as a concert venue. Notable acts who performed there include The Doors, The Who, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix. Of course, all of these concerts drew large crowds, and every summer, the Bowl rocked. In 1973, it was renamed Louis Armstrong Stadium in honor of the great musician who had lived nearby until his death two years prior. The structure, however, was not maintained very well, especially as the mid-70’s came and went, and soon fell into a state of disrepair comparable to that of the New York State Pavilion today.

But then along came the US Open, searching for a suitable site to host America’s Grand Slam event. The story goes that then-USTA president Slew Hesler saw the decrepit Stadium from a plane and decided to lease it and renovate it, making it the center court of the new USTA National Tennis Center. Because the Stadium was much too large to host only one court, it was split down the middle into two, with the larger, 18,000 seat side retaining the Louis Armstrong name and the smaller, 6000 seat side taking the name of Grandstand. The configuration was quite similar to the situation with Wimbledon’s Centre Court and the old No. 1 Court, with the exception that fans could freely walk between the two as they were located in the same structure.

Kim Clijsters serves on the Grandstand in 2002. Photo (c) jjknews of the blog The Overset Box.

Of the two stadia, Louis Armstrong is the more conventional one, a large bowl with seats on all sides; the lower bowl is a darker shade of blue than the upper bowl. By today’s standards, Armstrong is inadequate as a venue. The exits are much too narrow, and exist only on the ring path between the upper and lower bowls. Therefore. many seats on the upper levels are very far from one, leaving people little time to find a seat–or get out of one–during the 90 second changeovers. Compounding the problem are the narrow staircases, which oftentimes force people to move during points in order to get around, which is frowned upon in tennis.

Many of the seats in Armstrong are far from the exits.
Many of the seats in Armstrong are far from the exits.

Located in a small space between the two courts, under the Armstrong bowl and accessible by the main path that rings around the entire building, is a small food court. Underneath this food court are the player facilities, shared between the two stadia out of necessity. It’s an amazing feeling knowing that right under your feet are some of the best tennis players in the world.

During its history as the US Open’s center court, Armstrong played host to a slew of tennis stars. On the men’s side, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, and Pete Sampras, among others, won championships on Armstrong; on the women’s side. winners include Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and Monica Seles.

Night match on Armstrong. Photo (c) Marc Gagnon.

In 1997, the too-big-for-tennis Arthur Ashe Stadium was built next door, and Armstrong was downsized to 10,000. Armstrong, however, has not lost any of its grandeur. Perhaps it does not host the US Open Finals anymore, but prominent tennis stars still play on Armstrong. During the 2013 Open, a Roger Federer match was moved from Ashe to Armstrong after a lengthy rain delay, and day session fans without tickets to Ashe (which means they would not normally get to see Federer play live) packed the Stadium full to the brim. Federer lost to Tommy Robredo in straight sets, but the fans got a treat nevertheless–quite the spectacle, in more ways than one, even for fans watching on TV. And in this year’s Open, men’s number 1 seed Novak Djokovic had his fourth round match scheduled to be played on Armstrong. He won in straight sets in front of a packed house.

That leaves the Grandstand as the quirky little brother. Courtside seats with a bleacher upper deck. The two main entrances lead directly into Armstrong, but there are entrances that lead out of the stadium as well. Part of Armstrong actually hangs over the Grandstand, and fans in Armstrong can walk onto a ledge in order to watch matches in the Grandstand from above–the only place on the grounds where this is possible. Fans in the top row of Armstrong can watch matches on both courts at the same time. (The new Courts 4, 5, and 6 have a viewing gallery where fans can also allow fans to watch multiple matches simultaneously, but those galleries are situated behind the baselines, while the ledge is on the sideline, providing a unique perspective.)

The ledge over the Grandstand.
The ledge over the Grandstand, the best place to watch a match in the entire US Open. The support beams for Armstrong, on the right, end rather abruptly, evidence of the former press box.
Panoramic view from the ledge.
Panoramic view from the ledge.

 

There used to be a private dining club called Racquets underneath the overhang, but it was removed in the early 2000s and replaced by seats. As the sun moves from right to left over the Grandstand, these seats fill up quickly as fans attempt to escape the summer heat. The court itself has the best shade of any court on the grounds, but players must play with a very distinct shadow line across the court for some time during mid-afternoon, which presents its own challenges.

Although Armstrong was renovated for the 1997 Open, the Grandstand was untouched until the dining club was removed in the early 2000s. Photo (c) jjknews of the blog The Overset Box.
Daniela Cibulkova practices with a hitting partner before the 2014 US Open.
Daniela Cibulkova practices with a hitting partner before the 2014 US Open.

The Grandstand has had its share of moments too. I had the privilege to attend what some call the greatest match in the history of the stadium, an epic five-setter between Sergiy Stakhovsky and Ryan Harrison on day 5 of the 2010 Open. I bounced around between the Isner match on Armstrong and the Harrison match and almost lost my spot as people heard about the match and drifted over to watch, but after Isner closed his opponent out, I was able to secure a nice spot on the ledge.

8
Harrison (bottom) serves against Stakhovsky in the fifth set of their legendary match inside a Grandstand filled to capacity.

The crowd was raucous. Chants of “Let’s Go Ryan” echoed around the stadium. Loud cheers were heard for every point Harrison won. The fifth set went to a tiebreak, one that Stakhovsky won 8-6. Loud applause showered both players, even though the favorite didn’t win.

Harrison and Stakhovsky shake hands after their match. Stakhovsky won in five sets.
Harrison (left) and Stakhovsky shake hands after their match. Stakhovsky won in five sets.

We remember these courts not just for the architecture or the intimacy, but for the matches that are played on them and the experiences of the fans. My earliest memory of the US Open is of the Grandstand, when I was there just as a wee lad. I sat underneath the camera booth, and I distinctly remember the dot-matrix scoreboard in the upper right corner, the twin of the one in the Clijsters photo above. My last memory of the Grandstand will probably be the Harrison match, unless I manage to attend next year’s Open. I don’t have too many memories like these of Louis Armstrong, though, mainly because I was very rarely inside there–I was always prowling around the field courts. It’s unfortunate, but the players that I wanted to watch were usually not good enough to play on the show courts regularly.

Hopefully, though, I will have one more year to rectify this small problem, as Louis Armstrong Stadium and the Grandstand are scheduled to be demolished after the 2015 US Open. The USTA claims that the building once known as the Singer Bowl has reached the end of its useful life. The new Grandstand will debut in 2016 as the No. 2 court for one year. A temporary Armstrong will open for the 2017 Open (similar to the situation with Court 17 in 2011), with the stadium being completed the year after. Current plans for the new stadia are unlikely to keep the charms of the old courts; the new Armstrong seems to be a 15,000-seat version of Ashe, while the new Grandstand will be Court 17’s bigger brother with a roof over half of it. It will most certainly be less intimate than the old Grandstand despite having a similar capacity, as fans will now be spread out in a bowl rather than on top of (and over) the court in a rectangle. But at least they’re keeping the shade.

Information on the Singer Bowl sourced from “It’s All The Streets You Crossed Not So Long Ago” (streetsyoucrossed.blogspot.com) and from nywf64.com. All photos taken by the author unless otherwise noted.

Edit, 12 September 2016: Removed dead image.


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5 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye to Louis Armstrong Stadium and the Grandstand

  1. The grandstand ledge was always my favorite spot to watch as well. No vantage point like it anywhere. It’s a shame to think it won’t be there anymore next time I get out to the Open.

    Like

  2. Terrific retrospective of two amazing courts. I had the privilege of being on Armstrong yesterday for the 7th-to-last match to be played there, and I was at one of the last Grandstand matches last year. Great memories.

    Like

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