Behind the scenes of the U.S. Open

By Jen Khedaroo

The U.S. Open is just a few weeks away, and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is buzzing in anticipation.

Daniel Zausner, chief operating officer of the National Tennis Center, is personally responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations.

“We are a bit of a hotel in that perspective,” he explained. “I guess you could say I’m the general manager of a hotel whose main focus is providing concierge service for everyone here, whether it’s the staff working the event or the players, fans, media or anyone else involved.

“We build everything that’s here, we maintain everything that’s here and we make sure everyone gets fed and clothed,” he added.

There are more than 500 players that are staying in different hotels around the city, and USTA staff is responsible for getting players to and from the stadium.

Over the two-week event, the USTA will attract over 700,000 people, making it the largest attended annual sports event in the world.

The Super Bowl generated about $450 million for the city in 2014. But the U.S. Open has nearly double the influence, and they do it every year.

Daniel Zausner

“We generate over $800 million in economic impact for the city, which is unprecedented even when the Super Bowl was here a few years ago,” Zausner said. “It just keeps growing.

“Our running joke is that we survived another open and the following day we’ll sit down and say we’re already behind schedule for the following year,” he continued.

“There are many who think we flip a switch around August 1.”

About 7,000 seasonal employees are hired annually for jobs ranging from selling merchandise to ushers to driving players to and from the complex.

“Our goal is always to hire as many Queens residents as possible,” Zausner said,

A job fair held each July to recruit seasonal employees also places an emphasis on those living in Queens. Typically, about 40 to 45 percent of the hires are residents of the borough.

The U.S. Open typically occurs the weeks before and after Labor Day, and from a tourism perspective things have quieted down in the city, so hotels and restaurants are eager for the business.

According to Zausner, the typical fan could stay in the city for the U.S. Open for three, seven or all 14 days. Forty percent of fans attending the U.S. Open come from outside of tristate area.

“It’s not a traditional event in the way that you can go to a Mets or Yankees game and know that everyone is from here,” he said.

Working with the Queens Chamber of Commerce and the Queens Economic Development Corporation, the USTA provides a booth and the two organizations bring volunteers on Queens Day to educate the out-of-town fans on all that the borough has to offer, from finding a nearby hotel to recommending a restaurant in Flushing.

The USTA also works with local elected officials to get their recommendations on local institutions that they’d like to see highlighted during the event.

Since the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is a public facility that hosts matches year round, local hotels and businesses do see impact throughout the year, even if it’s not on the scale of the U.S. Open. They are the host location for 75 high schools and colleges that don’t have their own tennis facility.

Zausner pointed out that sponsors of the U.S. Open are very active at the site. Most of their sponsor partners have had decades-long relationships with the US Open.

Because there is a lack of parking lots at the U.S. Open, Zausner said they carefully work with nearby privately owned lots and the New York Mets, who offer either complete access to parking when the team is on the road or partial access when they’re playing at Citi Field.

When construction began on Citi Field in 2006, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg urged people to use mass transit when attending matches. Back then, the mass transit ridership was about 35 percent, now mass transit ridership has increased to over 60 percent.

“The MTA and LIRR do a phenomenal job of getting people in and out of the site,” Zausner said.

This year, during the first two nights of the U.S. Open, there will be a Lady Gaga concert at Citi Field during the evening tennis sessions. With 40,000 people at Citi Field and 24,000 people at the U.S. Open, Zausner’s team has discussed with the NYPD, MTA and LIRR about implementing more express trains to get riders in-and-out as quickly as possible.

A bird’s eye view overlooking the courts.

“In this elevated times of security, there’s no chance taken on transporting players, and working with the NYPD will make sure it’s taken care of,” he said.

As one of the world’s largest sporting events, it’s amazing the U.S. Open often goes off without a hitch. That’s because during the event staff focuses on all the changes they’ve made throughout the year, and observe whether the changes made a positive impact from the perspective of the fans, media and players.

While they have had to put out some fires here and there, figuratively speaking, the goal is to solve problems quickly and efficiently without the public noticing.

“We used to say the only two things we couldn’t control were who won the matches and the weather,” he said.

But now there’s a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, and next year after the completion of the Louis Armstrong Stadium an additional 14,000 fans can enjoy tennis in any weather.

“So now we just leave it up to the players to see who wins,” Zausner joked.

Each year the event receives a tremendous amount of repeat business, and Zausner said attendees expect to see something new each year.

“We know the players are going to deliver on the court, but we have to be in charge of every other aspect of the experience,” he said. “We are constantly making upgrades somewhere on the site, from massive construction going on right now or something as small as tweaking a menu.”

By the way, if you’ve ever wondered who decides where the players play their matches, Zausner said there’s the initial tournament draw followed by the USTA’s Tournament Management Committee, which works with broadcast, tournament partners and player representatives to determine where and when is best for a player to play.

“If we have a Russian player playing against a German player, we would schedule it for their evening rather than at 3 a.m.,” Zausner said. “So those players could play earlier than an American player. There’s always a bit of a juggling act.”

If you’re a Queens resident who has never been to the U.S. Open before, Zausner recommends attending the free Qualifying Tournament, which occurs from Tuesday through Friday in the week prior to the U.S. Open. It’s a hidden gem that’s starting to get more traction with over 10,000 people visiting daily.

“That tournament alone is about $3 million in prize money, so it’s not a small tournament,” Zausner said. “If you’re someone who is just getting into tennis, you’re watching these matches out on our courts and you’d be hard pressed to imagine that a player could actually be better than these players, because the quality is that on par.

“Many of these players then qualify for the U.S. Open the following week,” he added.

Ground passes for the first eight days of the tournament gets you access to everywhere but Arthur Ashe Stadium. The courts open at 9 a.m., players are usually out by 11:30 a.m., and there are a lot of pass holders who will stay until 10 p.m. watching matches at the other 13 courts, along with shopping and trying out the new food.

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