The Complex Science behind the Lush Green Grass Courts of Wimbledon

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An inseparable part of British summer time, the Wimbledon Championship is on between 29.06 – 17.07. With more than 450,000 spectators attending each year, and 19 grass courts, it is a massive event, yet it still retains its Victorian atmosphere and image. As spectators gather to drink Pimm’s, eat strawberries and cream, and watch tennis legends face off each other, 250 ballboys and ballgirls prepare to pick up the 50,000 balls which will be used. The spirit of the event is known worldwide, with 300,000,000 TV sets tuning in during the Championship.

But as tennis players undergo heavy training routine, and strawberry farmers prepare to sell 28 tones of fruit, a team of gardeners goes on a mission to ensure the perfect conditions for the tournament. Wimbledon is the last of the four Grand Slam that hasn’t switched to hardcourt and still uses grass. Grass provides the fastest variety of tennis, but is much more fragile and needs constant care—otherwise the game would be impossible to play. But how does the grass cover stay in a proper condition for 14 full days, over 600 matches, and hours upon hours of gameplay?

For once, there are strict requirements for the lawn of the courts that should be met each year. There are also various specialists and contractors who make sure the courts are well-maintained during the tournament. And, of course, there are different specifics, such as what grass and what soil are used, that provide solutions to most of the problems that can occur.

Requirements:

  • Grass must be 100% Perennial Ryegrass;
  • It must be able to survive the hard and dry soil conditions, required for the perfect ball bounce;
  • Grass blade cut must be 8mm;
  • Watering the grass during the Championship should be minimal;
  • Soil must contain 25% clay;

Preparation:

In 2012, Neil Stubley replaced Eddie Seward and became head of the ground keepers , responsible for the preparation and maintenance of the courts. 16 ground keepers are permanently employed, and their team reaches 28 people during Championship season.

To ensure best possible growth, grass must be seeded in April, for which nine tones of seeds are used each year. The mix should be 100% ryegrass, as determined by the The Sports Turf Research Institute in Yorkshire, UK. Previously, a mix of 70% and 30% creeping red fescue was used.

The grass is inspected daily, and once the blades reach 15 mm, is cut three times a week to maintain that length before the Wimbledon tournament. In the end of May, the white markings are put on the courts. In June, the amount of water used for irrigation is lowered, which helps the ground to harden.

During the Championship:

During the Championship. A team of 28 groundskeepers is responsible for the condition of the courts. The grass blades must be 8 mm long and the grass is cut daily to maintain that length. An independent turf consultant measures the hardness of the surface, the chlorophyll index, and the live grass content, to make sure it is within limits.

As hard as those specialists try to maintain the condition of the court, it is inevitable that conditions will worsen as the tournament progresses. By the 11th day, stomped brown patches appear at both baselines. The live grass content of the inner court is usually around 75%; by that time, the baselines can have under 10% of live grass content. The constant stomping and running around of players makes it impossible to treat those areas, yet they are a part of the Wimbledon Championship as much as strawberries and Pimm’s are. “Players adapt”, sums up the previous head of the groundkeepers, Eddie Seaward.

The real problem are irregular bounces, which may be hard to perceive to fans, but are painstakingly obvious to players. If the ball strikes a bare spot, its trajectory is much more unpredictable, and it is likely to lose speed.

Still, the grass today is much closer to a hardcourt than it was before. 15 years ago, poa annua weed “infected” the courts, making them spongy and soft. To combat this issue, in 2001 Wimbledon consulted with the Sports Turf Research Institute, and switched to ryegrass.

The soil was changed as well, to a harder one. 25% of the ground cover is clay in it, which makes the ground prone to cracks. Thanks to the constant supervising, they appear rarely, and the new covering has been hailed as one of the best Wimbledon has used.

Off-Season

Some of the most important steps are carried out after the conclusion of the games. During the autumn months, the ground is irrigated, aerated, and seeded again. Thatch – the thick layer of detritus between the grass and the soil which makes the court spongy, is removed by drilling small holes in it through which the soil “breathes”.

During winter, the grass is covered with frost and extreme caution is needed when mowing it. The grass blade is cut to 15 millimetres to minimise the potential harm to the green cover.

Pests are also a problem, and during summer officials fly a hawk once a week to scare off pigeons. Another treat are foxes, who enjoy sunbathing on the roof. Their urine is particularly damaging to ryegrass, so electric fences are installed around the Central Court to prevent those animals from getting in.

No matter what time of the year, the grass of Wimbledon looks so picturesque it seems a sin to even think about walking on it. However, through constant maintenance, strict rules and guidelines, and thorough scientific research, Wimbledon officials never fail to create green cover which can withstand 2 weeks of one of the biggest tennis tournaments on the world. And, along with neck ties, Pimm’s, and strawberries and cream, the grass courts of Wimbledon have became an inseparable part of British summer life.

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