A sinister note tolled at the new Louis Armstrong Stadium in the first week of the US Open, where a bevy of seeded players bowed out on the US Tennis Association's newest showpiece.
World No. 1 Simona Halep was the first to go — stunned in the first round by Estonian Kaia Kanepi in the very first tournament match to be played on the jazzy new 14,000-seat stadium with a retractable high-tech fabric roof. World No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki followed, although the Dane said it was perhaps too soon to liken Armstrong to Wimbledon’s infamous old Court Two — once known as the Graveyard of Champions.
“I think it's a great court,” Wozniacki said after falling to Lesia Tsurenko in the second round. “It's intimate.”
But the casualties continued to mount with 2016 champion Angelique Kerber, trying to become the third woman in the last 20 years to win both Wimbledon and the US Open in the same year, losing on Armstrong in the third round along with two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, two-time Grand Slam winner Garbine Muguruza and highly touted men's fourth seed Alexander Zverev.
The USD 200 million (EUR 172 million) stadium — the last piece of a USD 600 million multi-year renovation that included adding a roof to Arthur Ashe Stadium — is dwarfed by the 23,000-seat Ashe court. Nevertheless, Armstrong offers its own brand of New York hustle, players are finding.
The intermittent shriek of subway trains that run adjacent to the complex, planes on the flight paths to La Guardia airport and the ever-restless Flushing Meadows fans can all distract — just as they did when the old Armstrong stadium was the Open's main show court. “It was just loud,” third-seeded defending champion Sloane Stephens said after beating Evgenia Rodina in her first-round Armstrong debut.
“There was a lot going on. Between the airplanes and the subway behind the court, the concessions being in the lower bowl, and people walking in the games at, like, 2-All, 3-All — there's just a lot going on.”
Just like on Ashe, when the roof slides shut, it's even louder.
‘Like a coliseum’
“Very different atmosphere, very different feeling,” said 2017 finalist Kevin Anderson of playing under the closed roof at Armstrong, which unlike Ashe has no air conditioning but is cooled by breezes through its ventilated walls. “Felt like in a coliseum almost,” Anderson said. “Constant noise going on the whole time.”
Noise isn't ideal, Anderson noted, but he said the continual drone was less distracting than total silence punctuated by sound. “When it's constant, it's actually easier to deal with. From the beginning, right till the end, it was that way. It was really exciting playing in those sort of conditions.”
Dominika Cibulkova said she found wandering fans distracting in her 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 win over Kerber — but added that an aspiring Grand Slam champion should be able to cope. “I think if something like this can affect you, and in the Grand Slam, then you are not focused and not doing something right,” she said.
Halep said the Armstrong noise was part and parcel of the US Open. “You don't find this atmosphere anywhere else,” she said.
And before the first week was over, Armstrong could claim its first US Open classic: 2014 champion Marin Cilic's five-set triumph over gutsy Australian teenager Alex de Minaur, who took the first two sets off the towering Croat then pushed him to an eighth match point in a four-hour epic that ended at 2:22 on Sunday morning.
“The atmosphere was very, very intense,” Cilic said. “Everybody was on their feet — 2 in the morning, fifth set, 5-All: it doesn't get better for the crowd.”