The grass courts at Wimbledon are known as the best in the world. But that didn’t stop players from complaining last year when they were less than perfect.
Roger Federer said the courts were slippery and lacking, well, grass. Andy Murray said that the Centre Court specifically had visible divots and was in poor shape compared with previous years.
Novak Djokovic agreed. “I could see there is a difference in grass, in the turf itself,” he told reporters. “I haven’t had that kind of experience before in Wimbledon, to be honest.”
Simona Halep described court conditions as “dangerous.” Venus Williams just shrugged. “You have a slip or two. That’s grass,” she told reporters.
It’s true, grass can be tricky and prone to changes as a natural surface. Part of the problem was last year’s dry, hot spell of weather leading into the tournament.
Officials responded to complaints that “hardness readings” were within the acceptable standard margins of play. Yet still this was the stuff of nightmares for Neil Stubley, the All England Club’s head of courts and horticulture in charge of Wimbledon’s 42 acres, including this year’s 20 practice and 18 championship courts.
The perennial ryegrass used at Wimbledon is typically comfortable in cooler temperatures, but starts to react negatively as the thermometer rises, Stubley said in an interview. “The plant starts to stress out and shut down to conserve itself. Last year, the courts played well, but looked bad, he said. “Grass is a living natural surface and it will react to the weather types. But last year we had a heat phenomenon that London hadn’t witnessed for 42 years.”
It’s one of the challenges of the job, which he took over in 2012 as the eighth person to hold the position since Wimbledon’s first tournament in 1877.
Stubley and his 16-person crew do everything possible to achieve consistency across all the courts, but can’t guarantee how good the court is going to be. “We can manipulate the plant to an extent, but at the end of the day mother nature has the final say. That’s one of the beauties of grass — it’s a challenge. That’s why players realize how special it is to win Wimbledon because of all the factors that go into what makes a Wimbledon champion.”
Stubley’s job is to subtly improve the conditions of the venue and courts and “not reinvent the wheel.” It would not be uncommon for him to be seen peering over his grass courts from behind his polarized Ray-Ban sunglasses, pull out small scissors, kneel down and clip a stray blade of grass. It’s the small things, he said.
Those small things are often subtle changes both on and off the court; barely perceptible touches of horticulture often overlooked by spectators, but certainly felt.
As an example, Stubley mentioned a recent visit to Augusta National where he and the head groundskeeper shared tips. Stubley noted the way the pine straw was raked around the trees. “They brush the actual pine needles around the base of the pine trees in a clockwise direction, in little circles. Most golf courses will rake left, right, center and all over the place. It’s that eye for detail that I’m looking for.”
The endless tinkering and tweaking all add up to what Stubley calls the “wow factor.” “When you walk onto the grounds here, you know you’re at Wimbledon and it’s like no other place in the world,” he said.
Grass can be fickle and make players ambivalent. As preparation for the Wimbledon grass courts, Roger Federer returned from a three-month hiatus and played the Stuttgart Open, winning the event for the first time. He said he was limiting his practice time on grass courts to reduce soreness in his back.
“I prefer to play on a hard court than on a half wet lawn,” he told the Swiss newspaper Blick. He complained of grass causing pain in his lower back and buttocks. “You will quickly get tired of this brutal explosiveness and constant adaptation. But that’s over now. I had enough grass training by far.”
Rafael Nadal is ambivalent about playing on grass especially after a long and successful clay court season that ended with another French Open title. He said he was unsure if he would be playing Wimbledon, but was now the No. 2 seed. “It’s a drastic change from clay to grass,” Nadal told reporters after winning at Roland Garros. “I did it in the past when I was much younger, quicker.”
John McEnroe, a three-time Wimbledon winner, brushes the grumbling aside. “That’s part of what makes playing on grass so exciting,” McEnroe said in an interview. “It’s more unpredictable, but it’s exciting. You’re tiptoeing a little more on grass than you are on clay or concrete. You have to accept that that’s the way it is. Sometimes it’s frustrating. You have to do a lot of work on it.
“You should have seen it a long time ago,” he said. “The grass is totally different from when I played. It’s like night and day. You now get a much truer bounce, which results in players staying back. The old days there were so many bad bounces. Three of the four majors were on grass. And the grass wasn’t very good. We developed shorter back swings and made a quicker adjustment or just take it in the air.”
Pam Shriver, a 17-time Wimbledon veteran, appreciates how a player can make the grass work for them once they accept its quirks. “In my 19 years of playing, grass was my favorite surface,” she said. “We played on it a lot more than players play on it today. A lot of people are uncomfortable, anxious and unsettled. And you see it in the way they carry themselves.”
Other players embrace the grass, and make an effortless transition, Shriver said. “Some are more skeptical and have some doubt, like Agassi who won at Wimbledon. He learned the way he played with his compact shots and hugged the baseline and took time away from opponents. You can see when a player starts to embrace grass courts and become more positive.”
Shriver said the key was to understand why a grass court was different and unique. “It’s the only surface that significantly changes. It’s so different what happens to it after 14 days. All that wear and tear. You have to be willing to accept some inconsistent bounces and some different kind of plays. The time is ticking away on a grass court. It doesn’t bounce as high, it slides and stays low. You can take advantage of that if you’re in the driver’s seat — the sliced serve reacts beautifully on the grass court if you can get the opponent out wide.”
For Stubley, he would rather not hear about the grass-court conditions during Wimbledon. At all.
“At the end of the day, the championships are about players, tennis and matches,” he said. “They should be the headlines. I don’t want the headlines. If we can go through the championship without talking about the grass then I’m a very happy man.”
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