It’s the first week of the U.S. Open and Rita Garza is a high-heeled cyclone composed of corkscrewed black hair, rapid-fire Blackberry messaging, a hearty Texan chuckle, and more factoids about tennis balls than you could ever imagine. As director of public relations for USTA Pro Tennis and self-described “Green Queen” (she’s the chair of the United States Tennis association’s Natural Resources Defense Council-partnered green initiatives program) during the 14-day run of the U.S. Open at the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., Garza is unstoppable, a force of nature.

“People see me coming and they go, ‘Oh, oh. Better watch out. Here comes Green Rita’,” she jokes.

Although Garza has a sense of humor about her not-to-mess-with role as head of the USTA’s 16-member green task force, when it comes down to it, she’s all business. It’s Garza’s persistence and drive, along with eco-inspiration from Billy Jean King herself, that has made the U.S. Open one of the more aggressively green sporting events in America all within a short window of time: Two years.

The tricky thing about the U.S. Open compared to other sporting events is volume. During the two-week tournament, the 42-acre Billy Jean King National Tennis Center hosts more than 700,000 visitors, the equivalent of two Super Bowls per day. That’s a mighty amount of highly concentrated energy use, trash generation and resource depletion.

Despite the challenge of fixing such an inherently un-green operation, Garza could not be daunted. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” she says.

Garza also points out that the USTA is “progressive but conservative as a brand,” meaning that the association, even with the help of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), couldn’t “just flip the switch” and become radically green overnight. It would be like suddenly switching out draft beer for sauvignon blanc at National Hockey League matches.

Flip switching or not, from 2008 to 2009 the greening of the U.S. Open has been somewhat radical. In 2008, public recycling was running at 15 percent capacity -- for every trash receptacle at the U.S. Open, 15 percent of them had accompanying recycling bins. In 2009, there’s a recycling bin -- 500 of them to be exact -- next to every trashcan.

The USTA and the NRDC along with auditors from Environmental Resources Management (ERM) that observe day-to-day operations at the U.S. Open, aren’t just focused on recycling. The purchasing of renewable energy credits (RECS) from wind farms helps the USTA reign in dirty power usage; a partnership with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) encourages the 700,000 tennis fanatics to use public transportation (players get around in a fleet of Lexus SUV hybrids); fans can buy organic cotton T-shirts as souvenirs; PSAs played over the giant television screens in the stadiums feature tennis superstars like Andy Roddick relaying eco-messages; and concessionaire Levy has enacted a composting pilot program in the food prep areas of two of the center’s kitchens and has begun acquiring food from local farms. And the 2.4 million napkins used during the U.S. Open? They’re now 90 percent post-consumer waste paper.

And then there’s the issue of tennis balls and their pop-top containers. About 17,000 to 20,000 cans (with three balls per can) of Wilson tennis balls are used during the tournament. Up until last year, the metal-rimmed plastic cans were chucked since they were thought to be unrecyclable due to the pesky metal rims.

Garza made it her mission to change that. After a lengthy search for a recycling firm that would recycle tennis ball cans, Sims Metal Management came to save the day and the tradition of trashed tennis balls cans became history. They’re now collected by Sims and the metal rims are sliced off the cans, allowing the remaining plastic to be recycled.

The tennis balls themselves live on far beyond the U.S. Open. They’re used in other USTA programs, are donated to community tennis programs across the country, and even find their way into nursing home walkers.

It’s nice to think that after the 2009 U.S. Open concludes and the high-volume activity at the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center winds down, Garza will wane from her frenzied state. Maybe she’ll hide out in the Bahamas for two weeks with a good book and not a thought of Roger, Rafael and Roddick. But for “Green Rita,” I doubt there’s any rest. If the USTA’s eco-improvements over the last two years are any indication, 2010 is sure to be a green grand slam.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Serve and protect: U.S. Open goes green
The U.S. Open tennis tournament attracts more than 700,000 visitors, the equivalent of two Super Bowls per day. That can produce a ton of waste --literally.