Pace of change exaggerated by Henman, insists groundsman

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The Independent Online

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. "