The time is rapidly approaching when Wimbledon’s head groundsman, Eddie Seaward, will be looking forward to working a 17-hour day. Looking forward to it with relish, too, since it will mean that the 2010 Championships, his 20th year in charge of preparing the playing surfaces, is under way.
An indication of the mounting demand on his time and skills came after we chatted for half an hour over a coffee at the All England Club’s Wingfield Cafe. Eddie switched his mobile phone back on and announced that in that time he had received 13 phone calls and eight emails.
The harsh winter and recent spell of cold spring weather have taxed Eddie and his 14-strong permanent ground staff team. “Until two or three weeks ago I was a little concerned because the courts were a bit thin,” he said. “It has been so cold that we were not getting any germination of new seed.
“We put down blankets and tried to warm the courts up underneath because the soil temperature had been quite cold, only eight degrees on some parts of the courts when it should be about 16. That’s in the shaded areas, not the playing surface, but the grass needs to be thick there for line judges and ball persons who are standing on it all the time.”
Now, he says, everything is on schedule and on 15 May he opened up the courts for the All England Club’s members to play on in the run-up to The Championships. Only Centre Court and Courts One and Two are off-limits.
It comes as something of a surprise to learn that many of the courts which appear, on Day One of The Championships, not to have suffered an intruding foot in the past 12 months are in fact in regular use in the weeks preceding, and following, Wimbledon’s annual extravaganza.
“Members are required to stop using them only a couple of days before The Championships, but by then you have the professional players in here practising,” he pointed out. “We actually finish play on the match courts at half past six on the Saturday evening ready to start play on the Monday morning. So we’ve just got Sunday to sort everything out.”
And that includes the main show courts, where limited use is permitted to break them in. “We play on Centre just beforehand with four club members to test all the electronics and give the ball boys and girls experience.”
So how does he manage to have the place looking so pristine on the opening day?
“We permit some practice on Centre as late as the Saturday before, but if the grass is bruised you let it grow a little bit longer. Then you water it on the Sunday. The water lifts the bruises and you can cut them out.” And, hey presto, the world’s most famous stretch of grass has been rendered perfect for the world’s most famous tennis tournament.
But surely the winter’s heavy snowfall caused concerns? Not so, says Eddie. “The courts need to be open to the elements to a certain extent because that helps the grass, even in winter,” he explained. “And the snow didn’t do any damage. It actually helped the grass, pulling more oxygen out of the atmosphere with it, so it helped feed the grass a little bit.
“Every year, just before Christmas, as a matter of course we blanket spray everything with a fungicide as a preventative, knowing that it is the only time we are going to be away for three or four days. Fortunately the snow came when that fungicide was still active, so we knew we wouldn’t get any disease underneath it.”
Eddie also refutes the public perception that the installation of a roof over Centre Court has affected the light available to the grass. Apparently, when the static roof was redesigned to accommodate the sliding cover it was done to permit extra light levels. “So that lets the light in when I need it, in the spring and the autumn,” he said.
“During The Championships themselves the sun is overhead, so we don’t have any issues with the new roof.”
That said, the familiar Centre Court mobile cover, the famous “tent”, which is erected with such admirable alacrity whenever it rains, will continue to do service. “Where the roof takes eight minutes to close we can protect Centre Court with the old cover within a few seconds,” said Eddie. Which just goes to show how adept Wimbledon is at combining the old with the new.