The playing surfaces at Wimbledon are some of the most recognisable and best in the world. The lush, green courts that grace millions of televisions during the summer hark back to a bygone age of flannel trousers, stiff upper lips and polite applause.
But how do you maintain the famous grass during the cold winter months? How do you protect it from the elements, dreaded diseases and pesky wildlife? If you assume the groundskeeping staff put their feet up during the festive season, you’re sorely mistaken.
For the second part of Tennis Talent’s Wimbledon in December feature, we spoke to deputy head groundskeeper Grant Cantin for the low-down on his daily battle to keep the courts the best they can be. Cantin has been working at the All-England Club for 15 years and has “seen pretty much everything the weather has thrown at us” – from heatwaves to typical London drizzle via thick blankets of snow.
First, the basics. There are 19 Championships grass courts at Wimbledon, with an additional 22 for practice. If stuck next to each other, they’d form a patch of highly manicured, 8mm-tall grass roughly the size of Trafalgar Square.
Moreover, every court is a different beast. They “are living, breathing surfaces. Some of these courts out here are almost 100 years old; some of the courts are only two years old. Some are in stadiums and some are out in the open. They all have different characteristics,” said Cantin.
This means Centre Court and the other stadiums – which are surrounded by concrete, plastic seats and excited fans – have very different requirements to, say, the comparatively open Court 16. “We know from history which courts are going to go a bit harder and a bit quicker. Stadiums will because they’re surrounded by concrete – when that concrete heats up, the whole environment will get warmer,” said Cantin.
This can significantly impact factors such as the hardness of the soil, how quickly it cracks, how much water the court needs and, most importantly, the health of the very thing that makes Wimbledon unique: grass.
The king of grasses
As anyone who has ever wrestled with a patchy or mossy lawn already knows, grass is a finicky creature. But the grass at Wimbledon isn’t the bog-standard green stuff on your local playing fields: it’s 100% perennial ryegrass, the Land Rover of the grass family.
“Ryegrass is the toughest, most drought-tolerant, stress-tolerant, wear-tolerant. It’s the only grass you could use for what we do here. We are the only event and sport that’s played on grass for two weeks straight,” said Cantin.
The seed mix had previously only been 70% ryegrass, with the rest made up by the wonderfully named creeping red fescue. However, research by the Sports Turf Research Institute found changing to purely ryegrass would increase durability – without changing the speed of the court.
“Our courts take as much play on them in two weeks as a football pitch does in two years,” said Cantin. The groundskeepers, therefore, need every advantage they can get to ensure there isn’t a return to the days when the Wimbledon finals looked like they were being played in the Sahara.
It’s a fear that’s, rightly or wrongly, shared by the players: “We’ve had Djokovic’s camp asking us whether we water the courts in the morning, which we would never do because it would make them slippery,” he said. “So they’re always asking questions about maintenance and how we prepare things. Any little bit of knowledge they can get is better for them.”
This precision also extends to the type of soil used: after all, there’s no point finding the hardiest grass only to waste in sub-standard dirt.
“I always tell people who ask me ‘the grass in my garden is crap, how do I fix it?’ that it’s not just the grass but what it’s growing in. If it’s growing in some horrible soil, it doesn’t matter what you do to that grass, it’s never going to be perfect,” explained Cantin. “We have our soil specially made for us – it’s almost a cake mixture. We’ll say we want 20% clay, 23% clay, whatever we want.”
Then add to the complicated mix the variables that the groundskeeping team can’t control: annoying, feathered variables. “You don’t see the pigeons now, but when we’re doing renovations and the seed goes down, it’s like steak and lobster for them – it’s the best seed in the country so why wouldn’t you want to come and eat it all? We scare them away.”
Groundskeeping at the All-England Club is, therefore, a battle of fine lines, where a subtle rise in temperature, tweak of soil acidity or variety of grass can have wide-ranging consequences.
Race against the clock
At the frontline of the struggle are a team of 17 permanent ground staff working around the year to make sure everything is in place for the two weeks.. The team swells to 30 during the tournament and is also joined by 190 court coverers, mainly university students, who aim to shield the grass from the rain in 22 to 28 seconds – and carry off the umpire while he or she is still sitting in the chair.
Disappointingly, however, they no longer wear suits and snazzy brown jumpers while they’re working. Poor show
So how do the staff prepare for the long winter months? Well, before we dive into December, Cantin rewinds back to immediately after the Championships, when the crowds have dissipated and the trophy safely put away in the Murray cabinet.
“Immediately after the champs, we start thinking and preparing for the next year… we’ll actually shave the surface back to soil, regrow the grass on every single court, every single year. We have to get this done before winter sets in,” he said. “The grass has to be between nine months and a year old to stand the two weeks.”
Consequently, Cantin describes the post-Championships process as a “race against the clock” to get everything done before the icy fingers of December, January and February take hold.
Just as we wrap up warm from the autumn onwards and certain animals go into hibernation, the grass needs to go into winter as hale and hearty as possible before winter.
“On the Wednesday [7 December], we put down almost like a hardening-off fertiliser, just to get the plant going into winter tough. Then we put down the fungicide down on Friday. With those two, the grass is going into winter very strong and healthy and we’re very confident it will be absolutely fine.”
Why the need for fungicide? Well, there’s one word that sends shivers down the spine of any groundskeeper worth their salt: fusarium. If this disease takes hold, it can quickly devour whole courts, leaving them dead and withered.
“The way disease works is it starts off in little spots and just grows and grows and get bigger and spreads. That can happen quite quickly,” said Cantin. “Fusarium is probably the number one disease problem we have here.”
A key part of the groundskeepers’ job is, therefore, is to walk across the grass and spot anything that looks amiss by eye – the early signs that a disease is developing. “Every morning, the guys will go over to get brooms to mop the dew off the grass. That’s quite important because you can open yourself up to disease there as well. You want to get those sugary enzymes off the leaves of the plant.”
It’s especially important that precautions are taken before the Christmas break as the groundskeeping staff don’t want to be caught napping (metaphorically, of course) by the frightening fungus. “This time of year we just want to take things into winter, making sure that everything’s going to be okay. Over the Christmas period there are only a few of us in so, if we did get caught with some grass disease, we’d be in a lot of trouble,” said Cantin.
As ever, the potential problem is exacerbated by the beautiful British weather. It seems to be a case of ‘you’re damned if it’s too cold and you’re damned if it’s too warm’. “These conditions right now, the warm, mild, damp conditions are ideal for fusarium,” said Cantin.
However, there could be also consequences if the winter is too inclement. “If it’s going to snow, we know we need to put that fungicide down because that snow is just like a blanket, sitting on and smothering the grass. If it’s on there for more than two or three days, you could be asking for trouble.”
It’s no surprise then that Cantin describes weather as “the number one variable in the equation for whatever we do”. The sun, rain and snow waits for no man.
However, luckily, 2016 was kind to the Wimbledon courts and they look to be in tip-top condition for the 2017 tournament. “If we seeded all of our courts in the springtime, they wouldn’t last three days. So it’s essential we get this work done before winter sets in. We’ve done that and we had a really good year this year. The weather was fantastic,” said Cantin.“We went into winter this year with the courts looking absolutely fantastic – they’re in such a good state right now. They’re almost championship-ready. All we have to do is dry them out.”
“We went into winter this year with the courts looking absolutely fantastic – they’re in such a good state right now. They’re almost championship-ready. All we have to do is dry them out.”