Neil Stubley, Keeping the Lawns 'forever Green' at Wimbledon

Neil Stubley, Keeping the Lawns 'forever Green' at Wimbledon

Sunday, June 29, 2014 4:37 am

by Alfons LUNA
LONDON – There are 54 million blades of grass on the Wimbledon Centre Court and it is Neil Stubley’s dream to keep every single one of them looking immaculate right through the tournament.


Keeping the grass green all year long, groundsman staff mows the lawn at the Wimbledon Stadium

The All England Club’s head groundsman has his work cut out all year round ensuring the lawns look perfect during their two weeks in the global spotlight.

Wimbledon might be the archetypal English summer event but it is played on grass cultivated in the Netherlands, a type specially selected to ensure the courts stay lush for longer.

Centre Court has 54 million blades of grass on 902 square metres of lawn, said Stubley.

“If you don’t believe me, you can go and count it,” he told AFP.

“My main focus is making sure that the grass courts look as much like day one as they do on day 13. It’s almost an impossible dream but it’s something that we have to try and strive through.”

The 45-year-old Londoner has worked at Wimbledon since 1995 and has been the All England Club’s head groundsman for the past four years.

He is in charge of the 19 match courts and 22 practice courts that make up the smart complex in wealthy, suburban southwest London.

Sixteen ground staff look after the courts throughout the year, but the number doubles between April and October. Stubley’s worst enemy is snow in the winter and baking sunshine in the summer.

“Once we get to the Championships, we are pretty much game ready and there’s not a lot more we can do to the playing surfaces,” he said.

“The daily operations for the last three or four weeks have been cutting every day, marking out and watering.”


– Seed switch changed playing style –


A mixture of rye, bent and fescue grass was traditionally considered the best for lawn tennis.

The bent and fescue blades were responsible for the ball sliding quick and low off the surface.

That necessitated a different style of play from the sport’s three other majors: the hardcourt US and Australian Opens, and especially the French Open, disputed on clay, where the ball bounces slower and higher.

However, analysis showed that the bent and fescue grass was not surviving into the second week of Wimbledon as players scuffed about the courts.

“We thought, ‘why have them if they are not (remaining) in there?’,” said Stubley.

So in 2001 they switched to a 100 percent ryegrass surface, and since then, the courts have played markedly differently.

Gone are the three-stroke rallies — that is, if the player receiving serve could get his racquet to connect at all with the low-bouncing ball zipping off the surface.

The ball now bounces at around 70 percent of the height it reaches on a hard court.


– Surface suits world’s best players –


Many grasscourt specialists lament the demise of serve-and-volley tennis — exemplified by the likes of Wimbledon champions John McEnroe and Boris Becker — where players would rush in from the baseline to catch the ball before it bounced.

“That wasn’t a conscious effort by the club to change that, that was us thinking, ‘let’s get the best grass’ — and the by-product of that is that the ball bounce now is more akin to a hard court,” said Stubley.

Traditionally, a Wimbledon court by the end of the Championships would have a triangle shape worn in, where players had served and rushed in from the baseline.

Now, the courts are bare behind the baseline and green at the net as the players stay back for long rallies, no longer needing to come in because the ball bounces up more.

“If you are looking back to the 1980s and 1990s, apart from Bjorn Borg, a clay-court specialist would probably go on holidays for two weeks because there was no point coming to Wimbledon,” said Stubley.

These days, a clay court master like Rafael Nadal — who has nine French Open titles — can shine at Wimbledon too. The world number one has reached five finals at the All England Club, winning two.

“It’s positive that all of the players now want to come to Wimbledon and the best players in the world, all of them can potentially win,” said Stubley.

“Some people say that we’ve lost the serve-volley game, but others say that the 2008 final (a five-set epic where Nadal beat Roger Federer) was one of the best matches of all time.”


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