Green! That’s the overwhelming impression tennis fans take away from Wimbledon. Head groundsman Neil Stubley and his team are responsible for maintaining the hallowed turf at the sport’s only grass grand slam.
His alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. After checking the weather report, he arrives at the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) shortly before 7 a.m.
Neil Stubley is not even the first member of his team on site and worrying about the state of the courts. Although worry would perhaps be the wrong word to describe the imperturbable head groundsman, invariably attired in smart jacket and tie. Stubley is not the type to panic about the condition of the 19 courts under his care.
“Attention to detail” is something many companies strive for in the modern world. Stubley and his 16 team members are a shining example. Perhaps with a green hue. At no other tennis facility in the world does the state of the courts have such a significant influence on the game.
“The players would definitely come to me if something was wrong with the courts,” Stubley told the official Wimbledon TV channel, adding that he could not remember it ever happening.
Immediately after finishing college, Stubley joined the club and rose from student trainee to chief gardener. He was the natural successor to legendary head groundsman Eddie Seaward and has been involved in 27 editions of the tournament overall.
Each Wimbledon involves 654 matches spread over 19 courts. Whoever has witnessed what happens around the grounds overnight knows the incredible level of care lavished on the facilities.
Everything is covered. Some groundsman even sleep at the club overnight so they can quickly react to sudden changes in the weather.
The nitrogen question
“In truth, the courts are brand new every year,” says Stubley, who can talk happily about the nitrogen levels in the grass, among other details.
It doesn’t hurt to know about such things as “poa annua”, or annual meadow grass, a low-growing turfgrass common to temperate climates that is anathema to golf or tennis groundsman.
You can also talk to Stubley about the white, green and violet flower arrangements bedecking the club, for which he and his team are also responsible.
“Whatever they have done to it, the grass is not the same today as it was 20 years ago,” according to Barbara Rittner, Germany’s Fed Cup coach.
Rittner won the Wimbledon junior tournament in 1991 at a time when it was hard to tell which was slipping more, the player or the ball. That has long-since changed.
“It’s true that the ball stays very flat. The drier it is, the slower the game,” Rittner says.
She has been trying to explain to her young charges that it’s no longer about serve and volley.
“You don’t have to rush forward after each shot or just play slice. Just play your own game,” she adds.
Incidentally “lolium perenne”, or perennial ryegrass, is the type used at Wimbledon. It has a height of eight millimeters and is trimmed exactly two millimeters every day during the tournament.
“Playing on grass feels very natural. You have a smile on your face the whole time,” says Roger Federer, the seven-time men’s singles champion who has a special relationship with the club and its traditions.
At the end of three weeks of use, including qualifying, the baseline area generally turns into something of a dustbowl.
“Generally speaking, a bad shot can then turn into a good shot because it kicks up,” says Rittner.
So that the courts are again back to a pristine green in time for the following year, the upper layer of turf is removed by machine after the tournament.
It’s an ear-splitting process - and has little to do with the romance of one of sport’s most prestigious events.