By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – Wimbledon’s head groundsman Neil Stubley spends most of his waking hours worrying about the 18 championship lawns under his command in the weeks leading up to the tournament.
They are his pride and joy, nurtured and pampered to perfection. Yet if the coming fortnight passes off with barely a mention of the greensward, he will be a happy man.
“I would hate it if we got to a men’s or women’s final, match point and the court was involved in that winning point because that’s not what it’s there for,” Stubley told Reuters as his staff liberally watered Court One on a sweltering day, 10 days before the start of the world’s premier tennis tournament.
“For us, if the courts are not mentioned for two weeks – job done. We provide the stage, the players provide the stories.”
The process of preparing the courts began almost as soon as the final ball was struck at last year’s championships.
The surfaces are shaved, re-levelled and re-seeded, then Mother Nature takes over for a while.
“It’s a case of managing the courts as and when they come back all the way through winter and spring,” Stubley, working at his 23rd Wimbledon and sixth as head groundsman since the green-fingered Eddie Seward signed off in 2012.
“Now we are in the most critical period when the courts are 99 percent ready.”
The biggest challenge is posed by the British climate.
Record-breaking June temperatures were replaced by a deluge of rain the week before the tournament’s start – keeping Stubley and his 17 full-time groundstaff on their toes.
“It’s like a rollercoaster ride,” he said. “You need to dry the courts out and keep the plant just on the point of wilting.
“It’s about finding the happy medium to make the court is tournament ready so this week and next is our biggest challenge.
“I’m a born worrier. I’ll wake in the night thinking about the weather forecast. We don’t want too much rain and we don’t want it too hot – although warmer weather is better because we can control the irrigation overnight.”
For anyone battling to maintain their back garden lawn, the magnitude of the challenge facing Stubley and his crew is mind-boggling – although with 600 tournaments’ worth of experience between them, there appears little that can throw them.
The scientific attention to detail is impressive.
While players fret about rackets strings, diet, footwear and biometric data, Stubley is armed with moisture readers and instruments to test court hardness – and of course the latest weather bulletin from the Met Office.
Contrary to popular belief, the playing characteristics of Wimbledon’s courts don’t come from the top few centimeters of grass – but rather the clay-based loam beneath.
“It’s something akin to a cricket wicket,” Stubley said. “It’s rolled very compact to get a nice hard surface. The grass part on top is the aesthetic look and holds it together but the characteristics are coming from the soil.”
Unlike the other grand slams that are played on cement or clay, Wimbledon’s courts are alive. Making each court play the same is the key to player satisfaction, said Stubley.
“The biggest challenge is consistency. That also means the practice courts.”
One topic that crops up more regularly than most is a perceived “slowing down” of Wimbledon’s lawns since a new perennial rye grass blend was introduced in 2002 – producing a less skiddy surface.
Stubley rejects the claim made by the likes of former British number one Tim Henman, among others, that the grass has lost its zip to the detriment of the serve and volleyers.
“The speed is more or less the same. It’s more about the bounce now. We have a firmer, harder surface now with less of the energy of the ball being absorbed into the grass. It should suit everybody,” he said.
And a word for those envious gardeners attending the fortnight? “Cut little and often, and a well-balanced diet.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Mark Heinrich)