USTA, US Open Broadcasters Overcome Irene’s Fury

The US Open tennis tournament at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY, got off to a faster and more furious start than usual on Monday. Broadcast entities, players, venue personnel, and even fans had to play catch-up following a weekend of preparation and planning that was lost when Hurricane Irene passed through the area on Saturday and Sunday.

Damage at the tennis center was negligible, but the potential for a catastrophic event required the entire facility to be stripped of anything that could be damaged (or could fly away and cause damage elsewhere). The breakdown and securing of equipment began midday on Friday and ended Saturday around 5 p.m., with everything from cameras, mics, lighting rigs, stages, and even signage and hospitality areas stripped down and moved.

“[The grounds] looked like they did three weeks ago, and it was amazing to see how quickly things were dismantled,” Steve Gorsuch, director of broadcast operations, USTA, says of the efforts to ready the tennis center for a hurricane.

While some of the equipment — cameras, lenses, mics — were placed back into original shipping cases, other items, like camera dollies, were rolled off the court and along the second-floor corridor of Arthur Ashe Stadium. Furniture from Tennis Channel’s set facing the plaza area was even stored in bathrooms.

“Everyone was inventive about where to put things,” explains Gorsuch, who credits all involved with the production for responding to the challenge.

Aerial camera systems also required an inventive approach, having to be secured without completely removing rigging systems and cabling. Tension on the cables was eased to allow them to move more freely in response to winds, and they were secured to a manual forklift.

The most challenging aspect of the storm’s impact wasn’t quickly breaking down equipment and getting it back in place but rather the loss of a critical time period: Arthur Ashe Kid’s Day, traditionally held the Saturday prior to Monday’s opening of the tournament, and rehearsals.

“Normally, Arthur Ashe Kids Day is an edited show, so technical flubs don’t make the show; we can come in on Sunday and fix them,” says Gorsuch. “Sunday is also a day when we [do a technical run-through] and rehearsal, and those were canceled. So we just started on-air at 11 a.m. on Monday morning.”

Getting operations back up and running required some tricky coordination. The original plan was to begin re-setting up at 5 p.m. on Sunday, but, when the weather was calmer than expected, setup operations commenced at 3 p.m.

“The first thing we did was provide transportation for international broadcasters from midtown Manhattan, and CBS and ESPN scrambled to get their crews here,” says Gorsuch. “But it was safety first, and people were told not to come if they can’t get here safely.”

For Gorsuch, the first step was a physical inspection of the 36 production trailers that are at the heart of TV operations. The biggest concern was leaks through the seals on the roofs of the trailers, but he says all the seals held.

“The smartest thing we did is not roll out all six courts at 11 a.m. but, instead, to take baby steps,” he says. “We started with two courts up at 11 a.m. and then rolled out two more courts at noon and the final two courts at 1 p.m. That gave everyone a chance to catch up.”

The first courts to be up and running were Armstrong Stadium and court 13, followed by the Grandstand Court and court 11 at noon. Arthur Ashe Stadium and the newest court, court 17, were both on air at 1 p.m.

For both US Open veterans and newcomers, the first day of the tournament felt almost like those of previous years. The beautiful weather was complemented by broadcast and in-venue operations that didn’t miss a beat.

Gorsuch, reflecting on the events of the past few days, takes away one thought: “I don’t think we did anything wrong.”

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