Groundsman quick to defend 'slower' courts

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The Independent Online

Eddie Seaward is the man who stands accused. The allegation is that he spoiled Tim Henman's chances of winning Wimbledon last year, and the £575,000 question is whether it will happen again this week.

The claim is that the All England Club's head groundsman helped make the hallowed turf play like never before - slower and higher and harming the hopes of the sport's already dwindling band of serve-and-volley players.

"There has been an effort to slow the game down and I question whether it's gone a little bit too far on grass," Henman said. "If it was a cricket pitch, would it be prepared to suit the style of our team? I'm sure it would be."

Martina Navratilova was blunt in support of the British nearly man. "It messed him up, the grass being slow and long," she said. "If the grass had been like it was two years ago I think he could have won Wimbledon. It may be still like that this year."

But will it? And will it be fair for brickbats again to fly in the direction of Seaward, an amiable man with a vast knowledge of his trade and a unique vision of how it is developing.

"Initially, I was quite staggered that people were saying that the courts were a lot slower, because we prepared the courts in the same way as before," Seaward said after evaluating the allegations of 2002.

There were certainly changes in the playing characteristics of the Wimbledon courts last year, but not all of them were intended. A new type of grass - rye grass - had gradually been introduced, because it is tough and lasts better, although it can affect the bounce of the ball.

"With rye grass there is a bit more air getting between the leaves, which dries the court quicker," Seaward explains. "We have been aiming for a higher bounce because when people serve at 140mph you've not got much chance if the ball comes around the ankles."

Seaward's final introduction of rye grass into the mix was only 30 per cent of the total and in any case the top-up had been completed by 2001.

"It was a very dry May [in 2002], and the courts became very dry and hard, and slower," he said.

One important aim, however, is to make the grass more playable for all the players. "We hope that with time it may encourage more of the clay court players to come," Seaward emphasises. "We want to help them get over the mind barrier [against grass]. It would be good for the tournament and good for the game."