Grass roots of tennis

Wimbledon: The finely manicured courts at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club are the hallmark of this sport's grandest spectacle

June 25, 2000|By BILL GLAUBER | BILL GLAUBER,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England - Eddie Seaward patrols the peerless lawn in the calm before a serve-and-volley storm.

Not a divot, not a blemish, not a blade of grass is out of place on an emerald rectangle nurtured to survive two tennis weeks while slowly turning into a patchy landscape.

"It's there to be played on," Seaward says. "We can enjoy putting it back together again."

Wimbledon begins tomorrow, and the eyes of the tennis world will be on Seaward's immaculate grass courts.

Red-faced, blue-eyed and mild-mannered, the 56-year-old Seaward is in his 11th year as chief groundskeeper of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

He's the maestro of mowing, aerating and feeding, the man who ensures that tennis' grandest stage, Centre Court, is primped and primed for such sporting royalty as defending champions Pete Sampras and Lindsay Davenport.

Sometimes, the joint looks so swell, a few spectators need to be convinced they are looking at real grass. Seaward recalls a few years ago when an American couple insisted the turf was plastic. He let the pair climb over the parapet and walk on to the edge of Centre Court, instructed them to touch the ground, and heard them say, "Gee man, that's grass."

It sure is.

Wimbledon is the last of a Grand Slam breed, the only major tennis tournament played on grass, the game's historic surface. The U.S. and Australian opens are played on hard courts. The French Open clings to red clay.

Grass is different, a living thing that can produce skidding hops and scintillating shots. Some players gripe about the stuff. Others thrive on it.

"The courts are hard but firm, and hopefully most players can adapt to them," Seaward says. "I think it's horses for courses wherever you go in the world as far as tennis courts go."

The tournament has its royal rituals, rich history, orderly ticket lines and disorderly weather, yet it's the grass that remains central to Wimbledon's identity and hold over the nation's fascination.

The country contains 2,000 grass courts. But there is only one Centre Court, where tennis culture intersects with Britain's passion for gardening.

"Grass has been the traditional playing surface of all sports in this country for many years," Seaward says. "It looks nicer. It's nicer to play on. It's kinder to the players."

Wimbledon's grass isn't just played on. It's endlessly observed and analyzed, especially while the rain comes pouring down during the English summer.

Seaward admits that when Wimbledon's lush courts show up on television, he gets queries from homeowners about how to duplicate the look.

"You want it to look like this, but you don't want it to be like this," he says of trying to match Wimbledon's grass at home. "A surface for tennis is different than the surface for a social lawn."

Seaward's fertile fields are tucked in a leafy London suburb. There are 34 grass courts - 20 for competition and 14 for practice - tended during the tournament by a small army of 28 groundskeepers plus 120 students who roll and unroll protective rain covers.

Club members can play on the outer courts from May through September. But Centre Court is the province of the pros, lying empty for some 50 weeks until the Saturday before the event, when four club members, all women, have a warm-up doubles match.

The Centre Court seed mixture is 70 percent perennial rye grass and 30 percent creeping red fescue, producing a resilient, carpet-like lawn that during tournament time is mowed daily to one-third of an inch.

Courts are re-sodded every six or seven years, Seaward says, using turf that is specially grown for Wimbledon at a site in north England.

Each one of the 32 courts costs about $6,000 a year to maintain. That doesn't include labor, such as two mechanics who service 20 mowers.

But Seaward says that beyond the mechanical and the scientific, the key to maintaining Wimbledon's courts is consistency.

"We're working on them every day of the year, weather permitting," he says. "We're always fine-tuning. We continue mowing throughout the winter."

He can get a handle on the grass during a tournament workday that starts at 6:30 a.m. and ends around 10:30 p.m.

The weather is another matter.

"Weather is my friend and my enemy," he says. "We have a love-hate relationship, if you like. The first thing I do in the morning and the last thing I do at night is to look at weather forecasts."

In 1997, Wimbledon turned wet and wild with three days of constant rain. Centre Court was ruined under dark tarps covering the grass. Now they have installed translucent covers and brought in wind blowers to solve the problem.

It's all the play that takes the greatest toll on the courts, from players diving for shots, to scorching serves clocked at 130 mph; nothing scuffs a court quicker than a player who drags his toe on a serve.

Yet the days when a tossed racket would cause damage may be over. "Now, the courts are hard, they tend to damage the racket," Seaward says as a smile breaks across his face.

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