Back in July, at the pinnacle of grass court tennis, Britain at last had a Wimbledon Champion again. But how are things at court level at the grass roots of the game? Neville Johnson went to one of the LTA's 800 Clubmark clubs to find out and got a bit of a reality check by talking to its groundsman, Steve Johnson
Sundridge Park Lawn Tennis and Squash Rackets Club has been a thriving hub of the game of tennis for over one hundred years. It is a delightful and very traditional set-up and, like the All England Club, is in a leafy enclave of outer London about the same distance from the centre of the capital. Similarities go no further, yet it is upholding, so obviously, the Lawn Tennis Association's (LTA) declared edict; getting more people playing tennis, more often.
It's a dank, unfriendly November day, but some of the 500 or so members at the club, midway between Bromley and Chislehurst, are arriving and keen as ever to play. Steve Johnson (no relation), the club's groundsman since 2002, talks to me enthusiastically about the outdoor facilities there under his charge and shows me what things are like at court level, as the game of tennis on grass beds down for winter.
The truth, as we all know, is that lawn tennis is anything but a grass sport only these days. As an outdoor game (and yes, I know it's played indoors too), it survives around the calendar because of all-weather surfaces. Those unzipping their racket bags as I talk to Steve were heading for the striking terracotta coloured artificial clay courts, which have a 14mm loose surface of sand filled polyethylene material.
"These SmashCourts® are very low maintenance," says Steve. "All I have to do is brush them daily ahead of play, and once a year I arrange for a contractor to deep clean them, which means a day's play is lost. Apart from that and lying snow, it's year round tennis on the four courts we have here. The members love them."
The Sundridge Park club is 'Clubmarked' by the LTA, a distinction afforded to clubs that check out as purveyors of best practice in a particular sport, first introduced by Sport England just over a decade ago. It has nineteen courts in all. Eight are grass, seven are tarmac, and there are the aforementioned four 'clay' surfaces. Members can play there, even under floodlights, pretty well whenever they want, and it has a coaching pedigree of some note with former Davis Cup player, Richard Whichello, leading it. It's not just a club with tradition; it has ambition, highlighted by plans to upgrade the playing facilities.
Steve is a practical and adaptable groundsman. His passion remains firmly focused on the club's grass courts though. He tells me how he was head hunted for the job there just as he had accepted a golf greenkeeping position at The London Club.
"I started my turf career twenty-two years ago at the one time Hall's Sports Ground, now the site of Dartford FC of the Conference Premier League and a John Lloyd Tennis Centre. I used to look after grass tennis courts, bowling greens, and a cricket pitch," he said.
"NVQ qualifications from Hadlow College and a later spell at Redlibetts Golf Club in Kent meant I was well on my way professionally. Beating off dozens of applicants for a job at The London Club made me feel especially good, but a call from a specialist groundcare employment agency changed everything. Would I be interested in taking over as groundsman at Sundridge Park? I was asked out of the blue!"
The club told him that the grass courts were its biggest asset. That's what enticed him the most. It was an enormous challenge and one that he couldn't resist. He's been at the club now for eleven years.
When Steve came to Sundridge Park there were twelve grass courts and, of the eight that remain, two may switch to clay. It's a big area of debate right now amongst the membership and one that may have an effect on other areas of proposed development in the coming months.
Steve shows me the run of six main grass courts at the club. They are just where they were constructed 105 years ago and were coming through the latest end-of-season renovation period. Five months or more hibernation awaited.
For three of the courts, 4, 5 and 6, this latest pick-up period had been different. At the end of September they were koroed, given a fresh Surrey loam topdressing, and laser levelled courtesy of R & K Kensett. The plan is to have all of them similarly upgraded to inject new life into them, but Steve chose the three furthest away for action first because they needed rectifying the most, especially in terms of the level. Since the work, which took a couple of days, the far corners have been raised by as much as 100mm. These should now be the best courts for play next season, reckons Steve.
"Who knows what grass was originally in them?" he said. "Gradually, over the years, they have become 100 percent ryegrass and that's how I reseed them annually."
Drainage is not a huge problem despite the London Clay base, though in mid-autumn the newly flourishing sward, boosted by Steve's reseeding, was literally sitting in water from an extended period of rainfall. He was reluctant to do any cutting or spiking just then, but he'd be on it as soon as things dried out a bit.
Steve's winter programme for the grass courts is a simple one. Cut as much as possible and spike as much as possible, once reseeding has had time to develop. He will spike until say the end of January, and no more after that. He says that snow hasn't ever been much of a problem because, being quite well into London, it thaws that bit faster. You have to let it disappear naturally though - no brushing or shovelling.
The club's neighbour is the celebrated Sundridge Park Golf Club, but they are in no way connected. The boundary between them, along one side of six of the courts, is dominated by sizeable oak trees. I saw leaves and acorns in their thousands strewn across the grass, and many a twig from the windiest of autumns for years.
Leaf fall dominates certainly the first half of the winter care programme for Steve. It's a daily task and a lengthy one. He admits it's far from satisfying and says he has never seen so many acorns as this autumn. He hates them. Each year, he spends up to two hours a day for the best part of three months just blowing leaves and tree debris.
The next stage of proposed upgrading is more than koroing the other three courts. It includes installing a new automatic watering system, new boundary fencing to replace the existing 70-year old one, and trimming the trees, perhaps taking them down all together. There are no TPOs, but the actual ownership may be in doubt, so the matter is unclear just yet.
In summer, Steve has no choice but to irrigate all of the eight grass courts using two small sprinklers. It can take him up to three hours per court to get the job properly done. The water pressure is quite low and each move takes up to an hour and a half just to get enough water to keep them growing well.
"Timed overnight watering would be so much more efficient and far less disruptive for members," enthused Steve.
"Hoses everywhere means mowing gets put on hold and court space is taken up. As things are, it's not popular and a massive juggling act."
He has acquired four quotes for designing and installing a six pop-up per court irrigation system to suit the site, and these range from £17,000 to £30,000. The matter is on hold at the moment alongside the possibility of digging much deeper into club funds and installing two more SmashCourts. Either way, 2014 is going to be an exciting time at the club - a watershed if it's Steve's preference.
Steve reckons 2013 was one of the best in his time there for renovation because conditions have been so favourable; warm and nicely moist. When we met, he was shortly going to apply what he called a normal granular autumn feed. In the spring, it'll be a liquid feed. His frustration right then at not being able to get on the courts because of the wetness was very apparent.
Strangely, on the koroed courts, areas worn heaviest by play were yellowing, even though sward germination was as strong as elsewhere.
Steve was a little puzzled, but put it down to unusually high leaching of nutrients, which he felt would be swiftly rectified by an autumn feed.
Aside from this year's Koro work, before reseeding Steve will spend a day per court scarify ing, then another day per court topdressing, luting and seeding. He reckons that, with weather delays built-in, the whole process takes a month, start to finish, from late September to late October.
Fusarium had never been a major problem for him, but it can occur and spraying was another job in the offing.
Looking ahead to next summer, Steve tells me that he will expect to devote about 90% of his time caring for the grass courts. During the playing season he cuts all of the courts to around 8mm, occasionally a little shorter, and perhaps down to 6mm for tournaments, which mostly take place on courts 1-3. Hand cutting to a 24 inch width produces a handsome surface, as I can see from countless photographs of warm summer afternoons at the club.
The grass court playing season at Sundridge Park officially finishes each year on 30th September, but there is actually a gradual shutting down during September. They open again the first week in May.
Returning to the club's big dilemma over its future, for seven months of the year the number of all-weather courts is a critical 'pinch point'. The reality is, if members want to play at busy times and can't because all of the tarmac and clay courts are in use, there are raised eyebrows over the dormant grass courts - all eight of them. May can seem a long way away when you fancy a game on a decent winter's day.
Adding two more SmashCourts, at the expense of two grass ones, would be a six figure investment and, if taken up, may postpone the irrigation upgrade on the grass courts and put back further koroing. It is matter of intense discussion right now at this delightful club, and Steve has more than a passing interest in the decisions that are made.
He can't speak highly enough about the advice that's readily available from the very top of the tennis world in the UK. He refers to Eddie Seaward in particular and his successor Neil Stubley, and the regular seminars held at the All England Club. Queen's Club, Hurlingham and Eastbourne's Devonshire Park too; they are all willing and friendly sources of help, always, Steve tells me.
I noticed that he had recently used the Pitchcare Message Board to get advice on pop up sprinklers, potentially a big part of investments the club may be making in 2014. One of a number of respondents to his plea for specific guidance was Hurlingham's Peter Craig, who even sent Steve a sketch diagram of a sprinkler set-up at the famous west London club. The dialogue between the two of them and others said it all about the professional comradeship there is out there. Bit of a pat on the back for Pitchcare's online services too?
Away from Sundridge Park, Steve is never far away from sports turf. He looks after the pitches for nearby Petts Wood Cricket Club, which he says he does in his spare time for fun and a bit of holiday money. He is also a pretty accomplished bowls player. In 2011, he was the Kent Outdoor Singles Champion, which is no mean feat.
Steve likes to work alone and can take the rough with the smooth, but says there are times when it does get a little too challenging, looking up at the giant oak trees. His affinity with the grass courts will never waiver, however many there may be at Sundridge Park. It is 'lawn tennis' after all.
What's in the shed?
Yanmar K-200h tractor
Groundsman 460HD turf aerator
Team Sprayer, 120ltr tractor mounted
Sisis Rotorake 600 scarifier
Blec tractor-mounted multiseeder
Allett C24 cylinder mower
Dennis FT610 cylinder mower
Honda rotary mower
Scotts fertiliser spreader
Stihl leaf blower
Various hand tools