Whoever enters the gates of Wimbledon for the first time is captivated by the natural grass tennis courts. Perfectly prepared, cut to eight millimeters, with the characteristic dark green and light green strips. It’s tennis heaven, reserved for the elite: two weeks for professionals who qualify for Wimbledon and several months for members of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC).
That grass must soon also be accessible ‘to the masses’, said Neil Stubley, ‘head of courts and horticulture‘ from the AELTC to journalists in London last week. The most prestigious tennis tournament in the world thinks it can spread the religion of grass tennis further across the world with modern techniques. Playing tennis on grass should not remain elitist, but should also be made available to recreational users. “We want grass tournaments all over the world. So that grass for juniors is not some kind of strange surface. We want to help with that,” says Stubley.
It sounds ambitious, but it is a logical step. Tennis is originally a grass sport, where players with wooden rackets bombarded each other with slice balls and service volley. The grass dictates playfulness because the bounce is so quick and uneven. It is a characteristic that enthusiasts sometimes miss. Three of the four grand slam tournaments used to be played on grass. The Australian Open and US Open have moved to hard courts. Yet Wimbledon remains the most popular, with the most appearance. Maybe because of the grass.
Grass courts are only synonymous with a lot of maintenance, and above all a lot of work. That’s what everyone in the tennis world says. Stubley knows all about it. He has been playing at Wimbledon since 1995. “All my life I’ve been looking at grass, or at the sky, to see what the weather will be like,” he says. Stubley is the engaging groundsman you imagine when you think of Wimbledon. Someone who talks incessantly about the weather and what’s good for ‘his’ grass.
Hot summers are a nightmare for its beautiful courses, lots of rain too. About 21 degrees with a lukewarm sun, which is perfect for the ryegrass that is located at Wimbledon, says the expert. Then the grass can also withstand that extra day’s load, which is now available. Last Sunday, Wimbledon officially played ‘Middle Sunday’ for the first time.
The secret to grass tennis for the masses, Stubley explains, is mixing grass with bits of artificial grass – artificial stitching† Weaving in artificial bits allows the grass to handle more water and get the track ready faster when the weather is dry. Then the English grass season can last longer than from May to September.
Wimbledon has been conducting trials together with the Sports Turf Research Institute since 2016. These are hybrid courts in London, consisting of 95 percent real grass and five percent reinforcement with an artificial fibre. A technique that comes from football, that sports with turf innovations fifteen years ahead of tennis, according to Stubley. Cricket clubs are also looking at the possibilities.
Wimbledon is also experimenting with other types of grass, among the thousands of varieties they can choose from. Strong grass with good playing characteristics for warmer climates. Trials are currently underway with six different grass varieties in both London and Brisbane, Australia.
These trials last four years, during which tennis players give their feedback about the enjoyment of the game on the grass courts, the height and speed of the ball’s bounce. “Don’t stop with these tests. Continue. That’s the feedback we get,” says Stubley. “I am confident that we can produce very nice grass.”
Grass in the Netherlands
The Dutch tennis association is watching these developments with interest. The KNLTB is not called the Royal Lawn Tennis Association for nothing, where lawn stands for grass, which was still played on in 1899. The only good grass courts in the Netherlands are the grass courts at Autotron, for the ATP and WTA tournament in Rosmalen.
Leon van Leeuwen, head of accommodation – thinks that grass courts in the Netherlands can mainly be a ‘niche’ in the Netherlands for the time being. “Real grass cannot be maintained for a regular club. That is not a serious option for recreational sports, as you can see from the wear and tear at Wimbledon after two weeks of intensive tennis. The grass of Wimbledon and Rosmalen is not feasible for a regular club. If you want to do that with recreational users, you mainly play tennis on clay”, thinks Van Leeuwen.
According to the court expert, grass – however fantastic to play on – is a realistic alternative if the hybrid pitches are really good. He also thinks that ‘private initiatives’ can be viable ‘If you have a group of people from the private sector who want to create something beautiful. A unique experience for recreational users, to play on grass, then it might be possible. Perhaps the great performances of Tim van Rijthoven and Botic van de Zandschulp now contribute to the fact that we are talking about this.”
There is good news for the enthusiast who has a very large garden and would like to imitate a Wimbledon track: the ‘ryegrass’ from the English tournament can be ordered from the wholesaler. The private individual must only have time to do the maintenance of the track.
Grass expert Stubley from Wimbledon says that going on holiday for two weeks is fine if you have a grass court in the garden, but that the grass court is unplayable two weeks later. Mowing every two days is the minimum maintenance. But then you imagine yourself at home at the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of 5 July 2022
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