At Wimbledon, the Bounces Are Better, but the Speed Is the Same

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The New York Sun

WIMBLEDON, England – When the world’s top players come to Wimbledon and talk about how the courts have been slowed down to aid baseline rallies, Eddie Seaward throws up his hands.

Mr. Seaward, 62, is a soft-spoken man with thinning white hair and a mild manner. For the last 17 years he has been the Head Groundsman at the All England Club, in charge of its 19 grass playing courts and 22 practice courts. Mr. Seaward knows his grass, and he insists that the ball still bounces off it at the same speed it always has.

“I don’t think the ball comes off the court any different from what it’s ever come off the court,” he said in an interview on Sunday alongside Centre Court, which was draped by a tent-like cover to protect it from the showers that eventually suspended play yesterday. “I think it’s coming up a little bit higher, because the courts are a bit harder. And that maybe gives a little more time to play shots.”

Mr. Seaward and his staff changed the grass in 2001, choosing 100% perennial ryegrass over a combination of 70% rye and 30% creeping red fescue. The grass is more durable, and leaves Centre Court looking a bit greener, rather than all brown, when the final days of Wimbledon arrive.

But it’s not the grass that feeds players’ perceptions of a “slower” court; one blade of grass could hardly affect the way a ball bounces more than another. It’s the soil, Mr. Seaward said. To improve durability, Wimbledon uses much firmer soil than it once did.

“We’ve tried to get it hard enough that it will survive the fortnight,” Mr. Seaward said. “We’ve done nothing intentionally to alter the speed of the ball.”

Players interpret higher and more consistent bounces as a slower court. They don’t have to bend or lunge as much as they might have in the past, nor must they worry as much about balls that seem to skid and hug the ground. Thus, the rallies are longer than they once were, and serving and volleying becomes more precarious, as returners see a more consistent target (add to this the fact that both men and women these days go for more, both in terms of power and spin, on their returns).Tim Henman, the hometown favorite and a longtime serve-and-volley player, said recently that he has learned to adjust accordingly.

“It’s being able to choose the right tactic at the right time,” he said. “If I play [Rafael] Nadal, then I think I can be a lot more aggressive on my serve and look to serve and volley. Whereas if I play [Lleyton] Hewitt, I wouldn’t serve and volley much at all.”

Andre Agassi, who announced this weekend that he will end his career at the U.S. Open later this summer, recently said that the more durable lawns at the All England Club are “almost such good grass courts that [the ball] bounces like a hard court.”

If players like Henman lament the change, they have only their colleagues to blame. It’s not their preferred style of play that Mr. Seaward and his crew have had to accommodate. It’s their increased size, strength, and agility, and their habit of hitting forceful strokes on the run and sprinting for shots that previous generations would not have reached. With modern players running about, grass courts take a beating. Mr. Seaward said his staff planted a quarter of a practice court with fescues a few years ago, just as an experiment. It didn’t last a day.

“Over the years the players have gotten a lot more athletic and harder and fitter,” Mr. Seaward said. “It’s a different game now than what it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

The courts at Wimbledon require lots of care. Mr. Seaward said the preparation for next year’s championships will begin as soon as this one ends – he expects to receive his first shipment of soil on the Wednesday following the men’s final. The grounds crew will preserve some of the greener patches, rip up and discard the rest, and re-seed. They also will remove any lateral growth, which makes the courts spongy rather than firm.

Mr. Seaward said each court receives a covering of two to three tons of soil to start, and then six or seven tons later on. By September, all the courts will have been replanted (members can play on every court except Centre Court and Court 1; the remaining are refurbished in rotation). When spring arrives, the courts are pressed with a large roller to firm them up. They are also rolled during the championships, usually daily.

A few more noteworthy grass-court facts relayed by Mr. Seaward: Wimbledon will not install lights, as dew often collects on the courts after dark and would make the surface too slick for play. The hardness of each court is measured daily with a cylindrical device that contains a head. When the head collides with the court, a digital reader measures the rebound force. A more durable compound, made of china clay, is required. The height of the grass is kept to eight millimeters, and the lawns are mowed daily. When it rains, blowers keep the grass dry beneath the tarps on about a third of the courts.

How does one come to be the top groundskeeper at Wimbledon? Mr. Seaward said he owes his career to a sports master at his local school who recommended he apply for a grounds care job at another school. He did, and eventually moved on to other jobs, including a small club in Berkshire where cricket and lawn bowling are played, as well as tennis. When the Wimbledon job was advertised, he cast his application in with the lot.

“The rest is history, as they say,” he said. “I never thought I would be here.”

Mr. Seaward plans to keep at it, too.

“I’ve got at least another three years anyway, hopefully,” he said.”I enjoy it.”

The New York Sun

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