The Grounds are owned by the All England Lawn Tennis Ground plc and consist of 19 grass courts (including Centre Court and No.1 Court), eight American Clay courts and five indoor courts, two Greenset Velvelux and three Greenset Trophy. In Aorangi Park, there are 22 grass courts for practice before and during The Championships and two green acrylic courts. The total area, including the Club's car parks, covers over 42 acres with capacity for 38,500 spectators.
Apart from the grass courts, the courts are used all year round by the Club members and LTA-sponsored players. The grass courts are in play from May to September (except Centre Court and other Show Courts which are used only for The Championships). The courts are lent to a number of clubs and organisations, mainly of a national character, for the staging of various events.
The activity around the Grounds during the month of May at the All England Club ramps up several notches, as the furniture is assembled around the courts, and the numbers of people on site go up and up and up. With just a month to go until The Championships, May is about cramming in as much as possible, so that the finishing touches can be made in June.
Contrary to popular belief, The Championships is not the first time that the grass gets played on. The majority of the courts, bar Centre and No.1, are open to the Members ahead of The Championships, with the first day of play usually taking place in mid-May, which is an added task for Head Groundsman Eddie Seaward and his team.
While the sward has been mowed regularly, reducing by 1mm each week to get it down to its playing height of 8mm, the next step is adding the lines. This is not, as you might think, a case of a few dudes wandering around with pots of paint. In fact, marking out the court is a practised art that requires patience and skill. And a bit of maths.
Here’s a basic guide to marking out the court, the Wimbledon way:
Start with your two post sockets. The distance between them is 42 feet. Measure between them and mark the middle – that is the centre of the court.
Measuring from the centre in each direction, mark out the outer box of the court with string (the Wimbledon groundsmen use a special orange one). The width is 36 feet, so insert two pegs, A and B, 18 feet either side of the centre mark. Measure 53’1” from A along the diagonal, and 39’ as the length, pulling both tapes taught – these will meet at C, the corner of the court. Reverse to find point D. The length between C and D should be 36 feet. You now have one half of the box. Repeat on the other side. The groundsmen always double and triple check.
You can now paint the lines of the box. But, and here’s another thing you might not have known, it’s not actually paint! The groundsmen use a transfer wheel marker (or roller) to apply a white compound that contains titanium dioxide to make it durable. All the lines are 50mm wide, except the baseline, which is 100mm. As you can imagine, they get through a lot of this stuff – about 500 gallons each year!
Depending on personal preference, the groundsmen use the string as a guide, walking along with the wheel marker slowly and carefully either to the left or right of the string. Each line is rolled just once, they don’t go over and over.
Then it’s time to measure and mark the singles tramlines – 13’6” from the centre.
Then measure and mark the service lines.
Then measure and mark the centre line (18’ from the centre), and the ‘toe’ – the funny jutty out bit where you serve from.
At this time of year, the courts are usually re-marked every two to three days, depending on the weather. But during The Championships, they are re-marked every day. In fact, the whole process is repeated 41 times for each court.
Thus, with exactly a month to go until The Championships, the various groundsmen are allocated their specific jobs during the tournament, which courts they will be responsible for mowing and marking, and that’s all they will be doing between now and July.
June has arrived, and with it, 19 immaculate grass courts, nipped, tucked and ready to go for the commencement of The Championships, 2011 in seven days time. For Eddie Seaward, Neil Stubley and the eager team of groundstaff at the All England Club, much of the hard work has already been done in preparing the courts – each member of the staff has been assigned a specific court to take care of, meaning that most people are well into their daily routine.
Cutting and marking, are the watch words, as the grass is mown every day, the lines re-painted, all to ensure they are in the best possible condition for when the hundreds of players start hitting their first balls in competitive anger on the first Monday of The Championships.
“We’re pretty much there,” says Stubley, Head Groundsman Designate. “We’re just tidying up the courts now, making sure all the furniture is there, maintaining them, doing a bit of spraying here and there.”
The recent wet weather conditions have prompted Seaward and his team to do a bit more rolling than usual, to make sure the courts are nice and firm, and from last Friday, the courts began to be covered overnight.
“It’s a case of managing the moisture,” Stubley explains. Seaward and Stubley also have the full complement of groundstaff to manage – 26 at the moment, with four more to come this weekend, and the army of Court Coverers who start when The Championships begin on Monday.
But aside from the final preparations, the groundstaff have another big task to manage during the weeks before The Championships: the arrival of the players.
Those such as Lleyton Hewitt and Maria Sharapova, who are members of the Club, have been around for a couple of weeks, so making sure there are courts for them to use, and maintaining those courts, is another thing to think about.
Practice for the rest of the players competing in The Championships officially opened at the Aorangi courts on Saturday, and so from now up until The Championships, they’ll be chock-a-block with players getting in as much last-minute preparation as possible.
Novak Djokovic, Marin Cilic, Hewitt, Richard Gasquet, Sharapova and Jamie Murray are just some of the famous faces trying out forehands and backhands on the Church Road turf. And from Wednesday, players will be allowed on to The Championships’ courts themselves.
“Seeded players are allowed to practice for half an hour a day, while other players in the draw are allowed one half an hour slot before The Championships, which most of them will take up on Saturday.”
“Once the final has finished, we have 24 hours grace where we collect players’ chairs and just make sure that all the covers have pulled off irrigation heads, and then on the Tuesday, for 2pm we had to have grass courts available for members. So within 36 hours of The Championships we had 10 courts cut and marked and prepped ready for the members. The only thing is, once The Championships has finished, we are governed by the weather. We don’t cover the courts for the members. So if it rains, the grass courts are out of action. The members put in the odd request but they tend to be happy with any of the courts.
Centre Court isn’t used by the members. We weed killed it, which took a week to take effect, and then we start on the renovation programme, growing the grass from scratch. It’s a total weed killer, it will kill the grass and everything, and then we start from scratch. We do the same to No.1 and No.2 Courts maybe No.3 Court. Given the choice we’d do them all. But because you have to leave it 10 days, we don’t really have that window of opportunity to leave them before we have to work on them.
Aorangi Park though is closed. As soon as The Championships is finished, Aorangi is closed down and we renovate the baselines, get some seed down, and cover them up. Because in August we have seven weeks of tournaments at Aorangi – the Vets Championships, which is a 22 grass court tournament, and then the HSBC Road to Wimbledon. There’s also the inter-services competition between the Army, Navy, RAF, and then plus members courts and matches at weekends.
But we’ve also got the hard courts back in action once all the marquees were taken down, so there are plenty of options for the members to play on.
As far as our team goes, we’ve still got 26 guys working, which will start dropping off slowly from August onwards. The Aussie guys have to go back for 1 September because it’s their season starting there. We get them for their close season. And then we have college students. We normally keep hold of two to three until the end of October.
Interspersed with several grass court tournaments and a lot of play for members, August sees the continued renovation of the grass courts at the All England Club. Head Groundsman designate Neil Stubley updates us on what’s been going on around the grounds …
Grass court seminar
“We had about 22 people here over two days to discuss all the ins and outs of keeping grass courts. One of the guys was from Boston, he runs a tennis club there that the US team are going to use as their base camp for pre-Olympics, so he’s been sent to have a look at what we do here. We get together with grass experts, soil experts, Scott’s fertisiler company to discuss good or bad fertiliser regimes, what seeds are best, what soils are best for tennis. We do demonstrations, how we renovate the courts. Queen’s Club come in and practically demonstrate their spring preparations, it’s not all about what we do here.
I’ve always preached that this is what we do here at Wimbledon, it’s not the right way or the wrong way, but it’s how we do it and it’s how it works for us. Everyone has their own site, so there is no should and shouldn’t be doing. For example, Centre Court and Court 12 have completely different dynamics, which will be different to the tennis club down the road. At the end of the day it’s growing grass, and you can either make it very, very complicated, or very, very easy. And we make it very easy. If you are a good groundsman, you know when your grass needs something.”
The renovation process
“Centre, No.1, No.2, No.3 Court and Court 12 have all been renovated, which means we’ve shaved all the grass off and re-planted it. Hopefully by mid-August, all bar three of the southern courts will be done. They’re being kept for the Antiques Roadshow. Next will be the Northern courts, we’ll work on them until the Antiques Roadshow, and then we’ll do the practice courts. It’s a bit of a balancing act; normally you’d want all the Championships courts done by the end of August.
We shave them, let the grass grow and thicken up, and then it’s time to top dress with five to six tonnes of soil to correct the nutrients levels. You can do that five to six weeks after it’s been renovated, and it takes three to four weeks.
So No.1 Court, for example, will be top-dressed by the end of this week. Then they’re ‘put to bed’ and we just cut them and manage them over the winter.”
Closing the grass courts
“August is also when we start to close the grass courts. From now on the agreement with the members is that we take out courts as and when we are ready to take them out. There is a tournament on the 17th which is the closing of the grass courts for the members at Aorangi. But we only close them a little bit at a time so the members can play for two weeks after that, effectively.
The Road to Wimbledon tournament is taking place at the moment, which requires 18 courts. We’ve also given them the use of some of the Championships courts as well, subject to what members need.”
September is about renovation, and the closing of the grass courts. The Members will have their end-of-season grass court tournament, which they had last Saturday, so now officially the grass courts are closed. But because we’ve still got a little bit of time, we’ve still got some of the practice courts open.
The courts that have been renovated through August are now ready to be top-dressed. We also prick the top of the courts, to let the air in there. There’s a team out top-dressing getting the levels back, and a team doing the renovating. By the end of October, we’d want to have top-dressed all the practice courts then too. Once the first frosts start coming in, which is early November, the surface becomes very soft, and the machines that you need to do the top-dressing don’t work so well.
Centre Court, for example, has been renovated and top-dressed, so it is what we would class as being ‘put to bed.’ So we’ll manage it from now until the spring, and then the natural April/May spring flush of growth will thicken it up to the thickness that we want for the forthcoming season. From now until the spring it’s a case of man-managing the courts so they’re healthy. Keeping the air in the surface, making sure they have enough food to last them for the winter.
The practice courts operate on a slightly different schedule. Two of the blocks of courts, at the College, are turned into croquet lawns after The Championships, and they stay in until October. The rest of them, we split into two, and we renovate half one year, half the next, because we can’t fit them all in every year.
We haven’t lost that much play because of the weather. But it’s when you start to renovate, that’s when it gets wet and it doesn’t dry out very quickly. We’ve had one of our worst-case scenarios of a wet, not particularly warm summer. When we get to renovation time, it’s always better if it’s warmer and drier, because we can control how much water we put on. But if you’ve got a lot of rain, you get restricted on what you can and can’t do. As long as we get a two to three-week dry window that gets us back on track.
What else has been going on?
We went to our annual trade show, touch base with our current suppliers, and take a look at what’s new, just to make sure we’re still getting what’s best for this club. Down to the marking compound, it’s evolving all the time. A brighter line, longer-lasting line, for example. Machines that will give you a crisper edge to your line. Every single part of it is changing all the time.
Is there anything changing around the Grounds?
There’s only a few bits of enabling work going on, so it’s the first time since I started that it’s not been noisy. I started in 1995 so they were already a year into construction for No.1 Court, then the Millennium Building, the roof, No.2, No.3, on and on. So we’re getting a bit of a break this year.
Has this year taught you anything as far as preparing for the Olympics?
Pray for dry weather! We’ve done some trials this year, renovating the baselines in a 20-day window, and they worked ok, which given that it was the worst-case scenario, it was wet and cold, we hit our targets. So we know it will work. Best-case scenario is that after next years’ Championships it will be dry and warm, which means we can control the irrigation, and everything will be even better than it was this year. As groundsmen, it’s a once in a lifetime experience for us.