In the last piece before the Aegon Classic Birmingham, the Edgbaston Priory Clubs Grounds Management duo of David Lawrence and son John talk final preparations for the grass courts, the tournament site build, working with family, and living on site through it all!
Co-Authored: David Lawrence - Grounds Manager, John Lawrence - Assistant Grounds Manager
Picture right - Sue Lawrence on court, mowing ahead of the Aegon Classic Birmingham
The build up to the grass court season is definitely a marathon not a sprint, having begun with renovations straight after last year's season ended. However the final month or so in the build-up definitely feels like the sprint finish! At venues across the country, Nottingham, Queens Club, and Eastbourne, there are teams like ours readying themselves for the influx of players and spectators to usher in the run up to the Championships at Wimbledon. Whilst much of this work is carried out with little fanfare, it's the pride in presenting our venues that drives us to ensure that everything is perfect when the cameras start rolling!
All said though, being a private members club, open three-hundred-and-sixty-four days a year (we do get Christmas day off!) means that we aim to be 'camera ready' every day.
That means that whilst we'd like to concentrate solely on grass court preparation, the pressure is on to maintain the standards from day to day that our members are used to. This means that every day, before we even look at a grass court, we still continue to clean eight indoor tennis courts, as well as water (as necessary) and brush four clay courts, and carry out general maintenance around the site, such as litter picking and emptying bins.
Picture left- Court cleaning, being carried out in early morning so as not to inconvenience players.
Through May, to add to our list of jobs, we've also had to recruit for a new member of staff. Unfortunately one of our team handed in their notice some time ago, as they have decided to take up a new opportunity to train as a paramedic. Whilst they left with our best wishes, this could obviously have left us with a major problem heading in to our busiest and most pressured period of the year. However, we were very lucky to have a candidate to come forward who we know will add a great deal to our team.
The candidate in question being Sue Lawrence (Dave's wife and John's mother). Sue is joining us with over ten years' experience of working on multi-sport, specialising in cricket, at the University of Nottingham. She also won the 2012 Institute of Groundsmanship Most Promising Sportsturf Student of the Year, has a City & Guilds Level 3 Advanced National Certificate in Sport and Amenity Turf Management, and also has experience working as a consultant, having overseen developments of sports ground internationally. To say we're extremely lucky to have such a skilled Groundsperson joining our team is an understatement - although the quality of conversation around our dinner table may be becoming a little dull to the average person!
Moving back towards the Aegon Classic Birmingham, May is a very busy month, with the actual build for the tournament commencing part way through. Whilst as a club we have some fantastic facilities, we are not geared toward providing seating for nearly 3,000 spectators on our centre court, nor do we have the infrastructure to accommodate feeding them and providing welfare and entertainment without a little reinforcement.
The first phase of the build this year involved bringing in much of the portable accommodation, such as porta-cabins to provide additional office space, portable toilet units to provide relief (literally!) for the additional contractors working on site, and later the spectators coming to view the tennis, and also new for this year - proper sleeper units so that us as ground staff have somewhere on site to stay!
Picture right - Grounds Manager Dave Lawrence mowing against the backdrop of stands being built.
In the past we've been known to sleep pretty much anywhere; tents, garages, offices; there's even a story that some members of staff slept under a snooker table in our old clubhouse! However this year the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) have provided us with a small portacabin each, with beds and en-suite facilities meaning that staying on site is a little more comfortable.
Over the next few weeks we'll clock up to, and over, one-hundred hours a week, as at the end of a working day, driving home is neither appealing nor advisable! The opportunity to rest somewhere which isn't likely to have us sleeping next to a mower is rather welcome!
The second phase of this year's build has involved the erection of temporary seating around the Ann Jones Centre Court. The normal capacity for our centre court is around 1,000 seats, however with the additional seating brought in, the spectator capacity is increased to nearly 3,000. We're certainly expecting a fantastic atmosphere when the tournament gets started on June 15th.
Speaking of the tournament starting, we're also, for the first time, having to plan around an opening ceremony for the event. This year the Lawn Tennis Association has teamed up with the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham Charity in order to create a themed day for the start of the event, with the hope that the event can also raise some money for a worthy cause. For those who aren't aware, the QE Hospital in Birmingham supports the UK's military patients who are treated at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine (more info can be found here).
Whilst this is a superb cause, and one we're very excited to be involved with, it does create some logistical issues for us. Obviously, it means we'll have to have the centre court ready to open a little earlier than normal on the Monday. However, the biggest challenge may be the military marching band that will be performing on court just before play starts! We've certainly got some planning to do between now and then to ensure the court remains in pristine condition despite the festivities!
Moving back to the tournament build, at the time of writing, we're entering the final phase of the build, as temporary marquee structures begin to pop up around site. We have a corporate hospitality facility built from scratch (including kitchens) for the week of the tournament, with enough space to cater for one-hundred-and-thirty covers every day. In addition, public catering marquees and bars have to be built to cover for up to three-thousand spectators. The time between now and the tournament starting will certainly be busy with contractors on site!
Of course, all of this infrastructure is put in place so that the public can see some of the world's top tennis players in action. This year we are extremely lucky to have the strongest draw in the history of the Aegon Classic Birmingham, with half of the world's top twenty already confirmed to be appearing, including: ï'· Simona Halep - Current World Number 3; ï'· Ana Ivanovic - Current World Number 7 and defending champion; ï'· Lucie Safarova - Current World Number 13 and Maria Sharapova's conqueror at the French Open; ï'· Victoria Azarenka - Former World Number 1, Grand Slam Winner, and Current World Number 27.
Picture left - Some of the starts of the women's game due to be on show at Edgbaston Priory this summer.
With such a strong line-up, we're fully aware that there will be a rather large global audience looking at, and analysing our courts - which brings us nicely on to the work that has been going on over the last month.
May was a challenging month, in that while it was a little drier than normal for us, the temperatures never really rose sufficiently to accommodate germination of new grass without a little encouragement from us. Fortunately we had our covers installed in early April this year, and whilst the traditional use for them is to keep courts dry, we have great success using them to increase soil temperatures.
This does mean that we can normally germinate seed, even when the air temperature isn't particularly helpful. By inflating the covers through the day we create a greenhouse over courts. This, combined with a careful irrigation programme, means we can create an environment of a warm and humid nature - perfect for bringing new seed through.
Unfortunately, warm and humid isn't just good for germination however, and like anywhere else we have to be vigilant for signs of turf grass disease. We try not to rely on the use of fungicides (although we accept there is a point where they have to be used) and try to manage our courts responsibly to reduce the incidence of disease - in other words, we firmly believe prevention is better than the cure!
This means that we are out on a daily basis dew brushing courts, we ensure mowers are set to cut accurately every time they are used and washed down after use, airflow is maintained as much as is practically possible, and feeding is optimised to ensure good sward health.
Picture right - It's cold and damp outside, but warm and humid under the inflated covers. Perfect for new seed - but fresh disease too.
That said, we do utilise a preventative fungicide at the start of our season, to cover us through the period our rain covers are in use. Our current chemical of choice is Primo MAXX, which we find gives us a fantastic preventative effect throughout the season. It is also tank mixable with a number of different products, meaning that the time it takes to complete spraying applications is reduced if we want to affect the sward in more than one way in an application. To ensure the efficacy of the product remains as high as possible, we rotate the use of other products outside of the playing season to try and ensure we avoid any resistance build up.
As well as the warming effect of the covers having a positive impact on seed germination, it has also helped with encouraging growth in the sward as a whole. Mowing frequencies have increased to virtually every day by the end of May, which has put us in a strong position moving towards the start of the season.
Now that mowing frequency has hit this point, it has become possible to begin striping courts in the traditional way, ready for play. We mow all year round with Dennis FT610's as we find the quality of cut to be superb, whilst the versatility of the power unit allows us adaptability in our maintenance approach. The later part of May has been about trying to get our stripes placed exactly where they want them, so that come the start of the Aegon Classic, they are as sharp and clean as possible.
Picture left - Grounds Manager Dave Lawrence getting his stripes in place ahead of the Birmingham Aegon Classic.
In order to accommodate the striped mowing, in mid-May we began squaring courts in. This process is completed for every court from scratch every year, and is re-checked several times throughout the playing season. In a very brief summary, a tennis court is squared in using the following steps:
The centre line of each post socket is found, and a string run between the two; The centre point between the two sockets is found and marked; The court edges are measured from the centre out (18 foot each way) and marked; The two marked court edges are then used with tapes being run 39 foot straight up a line, and 53 foot and 7/8's diagonally to find the four corners; All the lengths, widths, and corner to corner diagonals are then checked to ensure accuracy.
Whilst that sounds straightforward, you then have to consider that we only have a 3mm buffer for accuracy - if we are out with our measurements by any more than that the court can be deemed unplayable by the tournament referee! Once all the measurements are accurate and we have strings down confirming this, we can finally start marking.
Towards the end of May, we made the decision to apply an additional dose of nitrogen to the grass courts, in order to boost the growth rate. In a lot of ways, the fact we needed to do this can be viewed as a good sign.
To our eye, it was simply a case that the sward was growing well, and required an additional nutrient input in order to sustain it, as the rate of growth meant that what was available in the soil alone was not enough. However, we will back that up with a soil analysis in the coming weeks to ensure our view is correct. However, the response of the sward to the additional nutrient input has been good, with a noticeable colour up and kick in the growth rate.
Picture right - Anthony Knight marking out, ensuring accuracy is the top priority!
In a lot of ways June is a simpler month, in that we know where we stand and where we are going. Mowing will continue to be completed on a daily basis (where the weather allows), and the only nutrient inputs now will be dictated by the TV broadcasters and the exact shade of green they would like us to have the courts! Fortunately this is quite a simple thing to manipulate with the use of a little liquid iron.
However, in many ways, June becomes much more complicated. Our team swells with the addition of nearly forty temporary staff, meaning that managing them becomes a full time job on its own, and the person doing so never actually works on the courts (this year John has taken on this role). Staff need to be inducted when they start work on site, there is additional paperwork in terms of their payroll, and most importantly they all need to be trained to use the court covers on site.
The use of the covers sounds like a simple thing; however doing it fast requires a lot of organisation and teamwork. Staff are taken in their teams in to be shown using a computer animation what their individual roles and responsibilities are in detail.
From there we take them on to court and practice - a lot! A minor mistake can set play back hours if a court gets un-necessarily wet and when the worlds press are all pointing their cameras at us, not to mention the 3,000 sets of eyes on us daily on site, it is best not to attract that sort of publicity!
Picture left - Assistant Grounds Manager John Lawrence leading the temporary court covering team as covers go on ahead of the rain.
The start of June also sees our court testing programme get in to full swing. Courts are tested at least once a day, ideally twice or more, for moisture readings and surface hardness (using a Clegg Impact Hammer). These readings between now and the tournament form a major part of our rationale when planning maintenance between now and the start of the Aegon Classic Birmingham. We try to work closely with Neil Stubley and his team at Wimbledon, and aim to produce courts that behave in as similar way to theirs as possible.
The bottom line for us is that the players are here to prepare for the Championships at Wimbledon, and so they need to play on courts which give them the best possible replication of the experiences they will encounter there. By testing on a regular basis we can ensure we are hitting the same parameters Wimbledon set themselves, and then hopefully achieve our goal of having courts that are like for like, in terms of the playing characteristics, with those at SW19.
Picture right- Steven Whitfield mowing whilst some of our court covering team take hardness and moisture readings.
June then, will certainly provide some challenges, and will certainly provide a lot of stress! However, the reason all of us have got into this industry is because we love what we do, and while up until the first ball is hit on June 15th, we'll be irritable, stressed, and generally grumpy, there'll be no one who enjoys it more than us when the sun is out and there is play on the courts.
We genuinely love sport - and hopefully the surfaces we prepare will contribute to a fantastic spectacle this summer, at Nottingham, Queens Club, Eastbourne, the All England, and here at the Edgbaston Priory Club.
You can follow us day-to-day in the build up to, and during the Aegon Classic Birmingham via our Twitter Account - @EPCGroundsteam.