Championship Point

Photo credit: AELTC: Adam Warner

Neil Stubley celebrates his 24th Wimbledon Championships in 2019 as Head of Horticulture and Groundscare at the world famous venue. Ahead of this year’s tennis tournament, he chats with Maggie Walsh about his career and reveals his tips for maintaining the perfect grass court

Tell us a little bit about yourself, how and why you chose this as a career and how you became Head of Courts and Horticulture at Wimbledon. I first started as a chef when I left school, but got disillusioned with the long hours and weekend work. So at the time my Mum was working at a horticulture college and she suggested that while I was still living at home I should take the opportunity to change careers. So I started my foundations in horticulture then moved to turf, getting my National Diploma in Sports Turf at Norwood Hall College. 

After two years at college I came here (to Wimbledon) as part of six month placement. During that time the Head Groundsman was looking to replace a member of staff who was retiring and I was the lucky apprentice who got the job. In 2012 I took over from then Head Groundsman Eddie Seaward, when he retired and then in 2014 the AELTC took the Horticulture in-house and so that came under my control too. 

What accolades have you received during your career? I don’t like to give too much emphasis to awards as it is all down to team effort what we do. In 2012, when we had to manage the courts for both the Wimbledon Championships and the Olympics, we won the IOG Groundscare team of the year, which was a nice recognition for all the team. 

Preparing the grass courts for the grand tournament each year must be a daunting task. When do you start to prepare the courts for Wimbledon? If anything we start looking at the next year’s plans before the current Championships start. So for example, now five weeks away from The Championships, we ask ourselves how what we did last autumn and through the winter is affecting the grounds now and what might we start to do different now to improve on next year. 

How do you go about preparations of the courts each year? We have a total of 16 permanent groundstaff and 31 during The Championships. This year the team have to tend 18 Championship grass courts and 20 practice courts. 

Grass is a living surface and must be on the tipping point of being under stress to provide the best playing surface. The courts are prepared in a similar manner each year to produce the highest quality playing surface – with even consistent bounce as well as the ability to withstand prolonged wear and tear for a minimum of 13 days. 

Preparation is independently verified by the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) in Yorkshire, UK, which provides research and consultancy services to the AELTC throughout the year. During final preparation week and throughout The Championships the STRI takes daily measurements of surface characteristics of courts to measure court performance.

All data collected is made available to us to help inform management of courts throughout The Championships and to compare data from previous years. 

What are your top tips for the perfect Wimbledon grass court? Is there a specific grass seed that you use and why? Since 2001 the courts have been sown with 100% Perennial Ryegrass to improve durability and strengthen the sward to withstand better the increasing wear of the modern game. The grass plant itself has to survive in this dry soil and research has suggested that a cut height of 8mm is the optimum for present day play and survival. 

In addition all courts are relined, rolled and mown daily during The Championships. Court wear, surface hardness and ball rebound are all measured daily. 

Are the preparation and maintenance of the grounds at Wimbledon tried and tested and unchanged over the years or do the team always look for new ideas? We are always open to new techniques and ideas. In 2017, the Groundstaff trialled a steaming method on four of The Championships courts, with the ambition to further reduce the AELTC’s reliance on pesticides in future years. The trial was judged a success, and in 2018, the steaming method was used on Centre Court and five other courts. 

There has been a lot of media headlines about the use of pesticides usage, so we are trying to get ahead of the curve ball and predict what changes will be put upon us in the next few years. We have to look to alternatives, and steaming ticks a huge box because it is ultimately environmentally friendly and there is no residual affect that you’d get from chemicals. We are actually already seeing better more robust grasses that will withstand disease and pests and hopefully play as well. 

Do the show courts get any different treatment than the outside courts and if so how does the preparation differ and why? Not really – every one of our 38 grass courts have their own little micro-climates so we have to be flexible with that and obviously the stadium courts are slightly different because of air flows and light levels. But ultimately we manage them all the same just fine tune which each one needs. 

There must be an array of machines and tools used to prepare the courts – which machine or tool could you not live without and why?To be honest I’d say I couldn’t live without the knowledge of the Groundstaff. There is probably 20 or 30 facets go into producing the best grass court whether the machinery, fertilisers, irrigation and chemicals used. Ultimately none of those will do any good if the person applying it isn’t doing the best they possibly can. 

What is the more challenging for maintaining perfect courts during the tournament – a summer heatwave or torrential rain? It’s a bit of both to be honest – you’ll never get a perfect weather pattern to make Groundstaff happy. My ideal would be a 25 degree day, light winds, low humidity with a little bit of cloud coming in and out. But you’ll never get that with the British weather system, so again the skill set in my grounds team is their ability to make sure they are flexible to adapt to the challenges. 

What would your typical day be during the The Championships?
An early start! At 7am the team arrive, the covers come off, we then cut and mark out The Championship courts in time for the STRI to run their independent measurements of the courts before we finalise them for play. There is then around nine hours of play depending on the weather, during which time I’ll be in and out the referees office. Early evening we are are in the practice courts (practice finishes at 7pm) cutting, watering and marking out as we put those courts to bed. And then we finish on The Championship courts, hoovering debris off the baseline, and then will irrigate them depending on how hard they are and then put them to bed. And then it’s pretty much Groundhog Day when we arrive back the next morning. 

What advice would you have for any person looking to start or change to a career in the sports and groundscare industry?Absolutely do it as it can be very rewarding. It has stresses and strains but what I like about my job is that year on year you never get two Championships the same. The weather patterns are a constant challenge, but that’s the joy of the job. You start each day with a blank canvas and you then do the very best you can to show case your grounds in the best light you can.