U.S. Open’s Most Exclusive Seat Belongs to a Tennis Know-Nothing

Engineer who operates the new Arthur Ashe Stadium roof ends up in an office with a giant window on the court; ‘this is for me?

The most exclusive seat at this year’s U.S. Open belongs to an engineer from Ohio who knows nothing about tennis and had planned to spend two weeks locked in a basement.

Mark Sharamitaro sits in a small, air-conditioned office near the top of Arthur Ashe Stadium with a giant window that offers a prime view of the action. So far he has seen the tournament’s two top seeds, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, and Rafael Nadal, his wife’s favorite player. He is taking photos and videos, texting with jealous friends and enjoying his minifridge stocked with snacks. He can watch all the tennis he wants—as long as he is ready to close the stadium’s new, $150 million retractable roof when it rains.

Engineer Mark Sharamitaro, part of the team that designed the moving panels, opens and closes the roof.

“It brings with it an entire roller coaster of stress, strain and emotion,” Mr. Sharamitaro said. “If there is any weather in the forecast, we are on pins and needles.”

The U.S. Open built a roof after years of rain delays that extended the tournament into a third week. It has already come in handy at this year’s event, which ends Sept. 11. When drizzle stopped Mr. Nadal’s second-round match on Wednesday night, the roof closed in five minutes and 35 seconds and then play continued. Mr. Sharamitaro celebrated.

“There was rain on the court stopping a match with Nadal, are you kidding me?” he said. “How much better can you get? My phone was blowing up.” A storm soaked the outer courts on Thursday, but Ashe remained dry.

The roof is more like an umbrella: The structure, which doesn’t touch the stadium, is held up by columns. It is made from 6,500 tons of steel and tear-resistant material and took three years to build.

Mr. Sharamitaro, a vice president at Morgan Kinetic Structures in Alliance, Ohio, is part of the team that designed the roof’s two moving central panels, which weigh 500 tons each. An air-cooling system engages before the roof closes. Mr. Sharamitaro loves the roof’s four winches, which wind and unwind steel cables attached to the panels, best of all.

“Those are great winches,” he said. “They just perform.”

Before he visited the Open last fall, Mr. Sharamitaro was told his office would be on the 23,771-seat stadium’s “lower broadcast” level. That sounded like the cellar. Then he was taken up to the top of the stadium, next to booths for radio broadcasters.

“I walked over to the window and was like, ‘Are you serious, this is for me?’ ” he said.

This week he has watched practices and matches, and even spent a few hours sitting outside in the stands, where upper-level seats are often empty. He has learned a lot but still finds calculus easier than tennis.

“I don’t know who most of these people are,” he said. “I tried to watch one of the women’s matches…and then one of them resigned.” That was Polona Hercog, who trailed Angelique Kerber, the second seed, 6-0, 1-0 before retiring with dizziness on Monday.

As a child in St. Louis, Mr. Sharamitaro, 49, used to watch Chris Evert, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors on TV. He even hit tennis balls now and then with a wooden racket in the middle of the dead-end street he lived on. His father painted lines in the road, and he and his family would hit balls over a portable net until a vehicle interrupted their game.

“Did you ever watch ‘Wayne’s World,’ where they play hockey in the street and someone would shout, ‘Car!’ ” he said. “That was us.”

But Mr. Sharamitaro eventually replaced tennis with tinkering. He rebuilt riding lawn mowers and learned about engines. Then his mother bought him a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A computer with a 16-bit processor.

“It changed my whole life,” he said.

Mr. Sharamitaro and colleagues from a partner engineering firm, Hardesty & Hanover, in New York, designed everything necessary to make the roof retractable, including the software. His colleagues, who take turns in the control booth, say he is the Roger Federer of roof engineering and programming.

“Mark, he’s a genius,” said Brian Hamill, a Hardesty engineer.

Mr. Hamill and Craig Johnson, another Hardesty engineer, know even less about tennis than Mr. Sharamitaro. On Monday evening, Mr. Johnson worked the late shift, which meant he had to wait until the evening’s last match finished before he could close the roof, lock it down and drive home to New Jersey. American Madison Keys eventually beat Alison Riske at 1:48 a.m. Tuesday morning in a best-of-three-sets match.

“I was like, ‘Do they go best of five sets like the men?’ ” Mr. Johnson said. “I looked it up on Wikipedia.” He didn’t fall asleep until 5 a.m.

Barry Keung, another Hardesty engineer and a native New Yorker, knows more about the sport than the rest. “Compared to these guys, I’m a tennis genius,” he said. He came to the stadium to watch matches on Tuesday, his day off.

It’s OK, Mr. Sharamitaro said: “If I built a whole team of tennis fans, nobody would be looking at the roof.”

They close the roof every night, in case it rains. Each morning before the 9:30 a.m. reopening, someone walks atop the east and west trusses, wearing a safety harness, to check for obstructions.

They have all become obsessed with weather apps. Unlike most tennis fans, Mr. Sharamitaro isn’t against downpours.

“I have a certain side to me that likes a challenge,” he said. “I want to see the system in action.”

When Open officials invited journalists to see the roof move in early August, Billie Jean King, the tennis legend for whom the multicourt complex is named, came to press the button. The roof closed on command but did nothing when Ms. King tried to open it. A safety sensor had triggered, stopping the roof dead.

It was an easy fix, but Mr. Sharamitaro couldn’t stop thinking about the glitch when he had to open the roof in public for the first time, during an unveiling ceremony on Monday evening that featured Phil Collins singing “In the Air Tonight.”

“OK, no more talking now,” he told his troops before the opening act. “Be the ball. See the ball, be the ball.” The roof smoothly slid apart. “Perfect!” he said.

Mr. Sharamitaro has to work on other projects, so he won’t be at the Open every day. But he will be here for the last three days of the tournament, when the most important matches will be played, including the women’s and men’s singles finals.

“Being as I was in charge and I was able to make all the decisions, it made it very beneficial to schedule myself into those slots,” he said.

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