Pace of change exaggerated by Henman, insists groundsman

Tim Henman, after admitting he did not play his best in his opening match on Tuesday against Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo, a Spanish clay-courter competing on grass for the first time, said he was surprised how slow the conditions were on Court No 1.

Tim Henman, after admitting he did not play his best in his opening match on Tuesday against Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo, a Spanish clay-courter competing on grass for the first time, said he was surprised how slow the conditions were on Court No 1.

"The level of belief of that type of player [at Wimbledon] has changed drastically in the last few years," Henman said, "because they have the opportunity to play their game. Ten years ago, there was really only one way to play on grass. Now that's not the case."

This is not the first time Henman has questioned the pace of the world's most famous courts, and he is not alone. The experienced Swedish competitor Jonas Bjorkman said in 2002 that it was strange that Centre Court was playing almost as slow as a clay court. That puzzled Bjorkman, because Britain's two leading players, Henman and Greg Rusedski, both serve and volley.

To get to the root of the matter - and also to the proposed Centre Court roof for that matter - your correspondent asked Eddie Seaward, the head groundsman, for an explanation. "We're not here to favour any player from any nationality, doesn't matter what it is," Seaward said. "We're here to provide a surface on which the players can enjoy their game and have the confidence to play all their shots and to entertain the public at the same time. The courts played very well last year and we didn't get a single complaint from a single player."

There was speculation that the introduction of harder-wearing rye grass slowed the court in 2002. "I don't think it's the rye grass at all, quite frankly," Seaward said. "Going back to that year, the build-up to the tournament was so wet I was actually concerned that we were not going to get the courts sufficiently dry and hard enough for the tournament to start. Then it got very dry with a week to go, and they went a bit too hard at the start of the season. It was as simple as that.

"I think the bounce was maybe a little bit higher and that, if anything, made the appearance a bit slower, because the ball took a bit longer, or players had a bit longer to play the ball in. But I don' t think there was a lot of difference, frankly.

"Durability is the chief virtue of rye grass. that's what we went for in the first place. Unlike the rye grasses of even a few years ago, the leaf is a very fine leaf. In fact, the lay person would have a job to to discern one type of grass from another now. The sward is slightly more open. It's still affixable, but you can get a little bit more air through the grass leaf on to the soil. That helps dry the soil, bearing in mind that it's a clay soil that we're using.

"One of the things we've got to look at is getting the soil to a certain hardness before play starts, so we get the ball bounce. Being a clay soil, you can only roll it so hard. I always use the analogy of baking a brick, because it's a bit like that. You take the moisture out before to get it to the final hardness, hence the covers going on the courts a week of two beforehand. If you can get the air into that soil, it obviously helps the soil to dry a little bit quicker as well. Therefore we are now in a position where we're getting the courts to the hardness on Day One that they used to be probably on Day 10 or 11."

Mark Cox, a former British No 1, can remember there being a "thatch" on the surface that kept the ball low. "We've eliminated that thatch over a period of time with good practices," Seaward said, "so now we get the full bounce of the ball. The natural habit of the grass is to start to grow lateral and then it links together and weaves like a thatch. When this occurs it gives you a soft surface, which obviously absorbs some the energy of the ball. So the ball doesn't bounce so high."

The 1987 men's singles champion, Pat Cash, commentating at the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club last year, wondered whether the Centre Court there was too good. "I heard that comment," Seaward said, laughing. "To a certain extent there's some truth in that. With modern technology and research work, we know what we've got to aim for. We can meet the targets on a more regular basis now.

"We know, for instance, roughly what sort of a hardness we need to get for an optimal bounce of the ball, which wasn't known in years gone by. So we can measure these things a lot more now."

A daily "bounce test" is made independently by representatives of the Sports Turf Research Institute at Bingley. They test the bounce, measure the hardness of the court, assess the wear, and monitor the colour of the grass.

Court One, opened in 1997, has a concrete base. "It has concrete underneath it," Seaward confirmed, "but a long way down. It has no effect on the play whatsoever. If you look at the hardness readings of last year, sometimes Centre Court was slightly harder than No 1. But there were only one or two per cent in it in hardness readings in either case, and they were playing about the same."

Court 11, the experimental court, also has a concrete base. "It does, but then it's built into a pallet system. The pallets are similar to the ones used at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, but the soils that are in them are not the same.

"The idea initially was to find out if we were able to construct a court quicker than we were doing when we first started the redevelopment programme. Instead of having an 18-month gap between taking a court out of play and getting it back into play for use at the Championships, we reduced that to about six months.

"Then it was a case of making sure that the court was suitable, that playing conditions were comparable to other courts, so that the players didn't notice a tremendous difference when they went from one court to another. Last year I think we achieved that."

It is imperative that the retractable roof on Centre Court, scheduled for 2009, does not harm the grass.

Barry Weatherill, a former member of the management committee of the Championships, who is a passionate crusader for the preservation and promotion of grass-court tennis, emphasised that design allows the roof to be retracted to the north side of the Centre Court to prevent shadow. When in use, the roof divides into two sides, north and south.

"From the start," Seaward added, "we set a parameter that we had to meet for the benefit of the grass, and then all the rest of the design had to be around that. The grass is the important element at the end of the day with the sport that's being played on it. We had to make sure there was nothing detrimental to the grass.

"One of the great things about the Club is that you have an input, and I worked with the designers of the roof for about three years before we actually got to where we wanted to get to. We had the STRI in with us, because they are obviously working with us all the time, so they know what our requirements are from a scientific point of view. We did as much as we could to avoid any problems occurring in the future. "

Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific