Posted August 29, 2017
The pro tennis U.S. Open getting under way this week in Queens, N.Y., is more than a sporting event. It’s a living museum, too. The hollowly thwack of racket hitting ball, echoing in the hard-court canyon of Arthur Ashe Stadium, conjures memories of past greats like Ashe and Billie Jean King, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Roger Federer and many others. All authored key chapters to their legends at the open, many doing so under the lights at Flushing Meadow, where summer often gives way to fall during the tournament’s fortnight.
The U.S. Open is lightning-fast asphalt courts, power tennis and epic, late-night matches that stretch to five sets. It’s also energy – energy that makes tennis today a much improved game and spectator event compared to the tennis when Richard Sears won the first open in 1881, no doubt looking something like the image here.
Better rackets, better shoes, better playing surfaces and conditions – better tennis wear (sorry, Richard) – all assisted by contributions from natural gas and oil. America’s energy abundance supports virtually every aspect of modern living – work, home life, health and recreation – including tennis.
The Arthur Ashe Stadium, the open’s home the past 20 years, illustrates. The stadium’s retractable roof lets matches continue even in inclement weather. When it’s raining outside, more than 22,000 who fill the stadium can thank natural gas for keeping them and the tennis dry.
From the Roof to the Baseline
Completed in 2016, the two fabric panels forming this roof are made from 210,000 square feet of lightweight polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a Teflon®-coated woven fiberglass membrane. Fiberglass, a type of glass often used for insulation and roofing, uses natural gas-fired furnaces to melt the raw materials that help form this product.
Arthur Ashe Stadium and its innovative roof use energy in a number of other ways as well – such as the electricity that runs the roof’s 600 horsepower motor and the 360 new LED sports lights that reduce glare on the court. In New York, 42 percent of the state’s electricity generation comes from natural gas. Energy also is used in the production of the court itself, one that manufacturers put a lot of thought into.
Athletes attending the U.S. Open have played on three different surfaces since 1881, starting with a grass court then moving to a clay in 1975 and finally to the current hard DecoTurf surface in 1978. It’s made of acrylic with a subbase of asphalt and 10 layers of cushion to make it resilient. Asphalt is a black liquid or semi-solid form of petroleum made from refining crude oil. It is the heaviest part of the oil, remaining after other products like gasoline have been distilled off during refining.
This playing surface’s cushion comes from the styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR) granules added to layers to help in shock absorption. SBR is a synthetic rubber made through by-products of petroleum refining (butadiene and styrene). Topping off the courts is blue and green paint that is 100 percent acrylic, with silica added to create the speed of play desired by the U.S. Tennis Association, which puts on the tournament – that is, the degree to which the court will slow the ball when it bounces. Acrylic, a thermoplastic material, also is derived from petroleum.
Game, Set, Match
Arthur Ashe Stadium isn’t the only aspect of the U.S. Open that relies on energy to maintain a high level of play throughout two weeks of matches. The professional athletes use equipment made from natural gas and oil to improve their game as well.
Take the tennis ball, which is made from both natural and synthetic rubber. It’s the latter, which is made from by-products of petroleum refining, that helps the ball bounce higher and gives it a longer lifespan. The felt that goes over the ball (and provides improved spin, control and durability), is made of a blend of sheep’s wool and nylon, a polymer derived from petroleum.
One of the top tennis equipment manufacturers, Penn, has used more than 150 million square feet of felt in the past decade to produce tennis balls. Cut to a 1-inch width, that much fabric could wrap around the earth 14 times. Not everyone who picks up a tennis ball will be good enough to play in a Grand Slam event like the open, yet tennis is popular across the globe for amateurs and professionals alike.
Oil and natural gas are integral in the manufacture of tennis rackets, from the frame to the strings. Most pro players use synthetic strings made from polyester, because they provide control and durability. Polyester is made from a chemical reaction involving petroleum, and it is sometimes combined with a natural “gut” for improved power. Nylon is another petroleum-based material often used in tennis racket strings, as it provides good comfort and playability, especially for non-professional players.
The U.S. Open is the highest-attended annual sporting event in the world, with more than 700,000 fans coming to the National Tennis Center during the tournament’s two-week run. Natural gas and oil help make the U.S. Open the exciting mega-event it is today.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.