As Roof Closes at U.S. Open, ESPN Keeps Twiddling the Knobs

The U.S. Open marked a milestone Wednesday night when rain forced the new retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium to close for the first time.

ESPN, which broadcasts the two-week tournament, took full advantage of the six-and-a-half minutes it took for the roof to retract, airing reactions from players like Rafael Nadal right through the next morning’s edition of SportsCenter. Behind the scenes, though, the network has been troubleshooting the production aspects of the roof and other enhancements to the fabled courts at the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center grounds in Flushing Meadows, Queens.

The renovations not only introduce literal moving parts, but the sound and look overall have changed, challenging crews to make sure coverage keeps up. (Of course, the network would gladly trade technical adjustments for the logistical nightmares of the roofless days. For five straight years, from 2008 to 2012, rain caused the men’s singles final to be played on Monday instead of the more ratings-opportune Sunday.)

“From an audio standpoint, that’s probably the most delicate to fine-tune,” ESPN VP of production Jamie Reynolds said Wednesday. “We had this strategy of where we’re placing microphones off the court to get that fan experience. We’re trying to see how to make that blend, how to make that cocktail.”

The early going of the tournament has featured a wide range of elements to bring to viewers, from the traditional opening ceremonies to a rock concert to matches in the blazing sun and in storms.

“We’re still kind of tweaking as we go,” Reynolds said. “Are the mics in the right place? Are we getting too much of the crowd base? Are they not focused enough on the courts themselves? We’re experimenting with that dynamic.”

ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert—who has decades of Open experience as a former player, coach and now broadcaster—said voices travel more with the roof. Some players have told him they can hear conversations from the upper deck of the 24,000-seat stadium, he said. Famously raucous Open crowds could become even more of a factor under the dome.

“But my favorite thing, bar none, [about the addition of the roof] is that after 1 p.m., you would bake in the sun,” he said. “Now, after about 1:30, this entire place is in the shade. It’s a way better experience for everyone.”