It’s About The Grass

By Jane Voigt

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June 30, 2014 — Every single year people try to drive home their opinion about the speed of the lawns at The Championships. Most commonly we hear, “They’re slower.” But are they? 

The Wimbledon grounds crew would argue the courts are not slower, substantiating their position with clinical precision about types of grass, the depth of the gravel and soil beneath each court, and the direction the blade, or leaf as it’s called by these grass custodians, grows. 

Central to the case is Perennial Ryegrass. In 2001 all courts were sown with this durable selection to ’strengthen the sward to withstand better the increasing wear of the modern game,’ writes Wimbledon’s web site. A sward is, ‘an expanse of short grass,’ which originally comes from Old English ’sweard’ meaning skin.  

Before Ryegrass was used, a mixture of grasses was planted. However the mix grew in all sorts of directions. Blades went left, right, crawled along the dirt … just every which way. There was no control and, let’s be perfectly honest, grass needs to be controlled at this prestigious tournament. 

Ryegrass, they discovered, grows straight. At attention. 

As a ball hits these groups of little leaf soldiers they recover quicker — boing, right back at attention!! Thus, the balls’ bounces are truer, more consistent. And, as a result, players don't have to dive for balls jettisoned all wiggy from colliding with blades that don't know straight from crooked. (Remember Boris Becker’s famous leaps, dives and rolls? Ole Boom Boom now coaches Novak Djokovic who seems to need a lesson in tumbling on the lawns without calling a medical time out.) 

Here’s what The Sports Turf Research Institute, an independent group used to validate this bold move forward, proved. “Changing the grass seed mix would be the best way forward to combat wear and enhance court presentation and performance without affecting the perceived speed of the court.”

The ‘perceived’ speed can be problematic, when trying to pin down fast versus slow courts. 

The grounds crew and research contingencies, though, know a thing or two about weather, grass, and soil. Chilly days can slow down play because the ground underneath the grass is not be as hard or dry. Hot dry weather speeds up play.

The truer bounce and higher bounce opened the door for clay-court specialist to return to The All England Club, which they had bypassed prior to 2001.

And while the other grasses grew laterally, and tended to create a thatched cushion underfoot, rye grows straight. The result is that the Wimbledon courts now have more bounce than they did in the past — a rough estimate being that they have 70% of the bounce of a clay court. Neil Stubley, head groundsman, via Reuters.

The covers Wimbledon introduced in 1971 helped make for more uniform conditions, too. Each court, with their varying dimensions, requires a custom fit cover. Because their weights differ, the time needed to cover/uncover each court has been precisely calculated. Crews begin to train 2 weeks in advance of The Championships.

In 2001, along with the introduction of Ryegrass, crews also learned to move the umpire’s chair out of the way of the cover-runners while the chair umpire remained seated. (DownTheTee is still looking for a photo of this.)

Neil Stubley, the head groundsman and the V.I.P. of The Championships, is extremely well informed about everything lawn. He directs the operations for Wimbledon’s 41 practice and competition courts. He would like the courts to look the same from day one through to Championship weekend, reported sport24.com

“Neil Stubley’s dream is to keep every single one of them [courts] looking immaculate right through the tournament.” And according to Stubley, there are 54 million blades of grass on Centre Court to pay attention to. 

“Centre Court has 54 million blades of grass on 902 square meters of lawn,” Stubley told sport24.com “If you don’t believe me, you can go and count it.” 

You can follow the The Championships’ groundsmen on Twitter at @AELTCGroundsman

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013