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Keeper of the courts
Wimbledon groundsman leaves nothing to chance
Posted: Saturday June 19, 1999 05:41 PM
WIMBLEDON, England (AP) -- Eddie Seaward twists his cheery face into a grimace when a racket is stabbed into Wimbledon's soft turf. And certain players always make the Englishman cringe.
"Some are more heavy-footed than others. You've got people who drag their toes when they're serving, dragging little bits of turf from behind the baseline onto the court so it looks untidy."
"No names, sorry, no names," he said, begging off the next question.
But what really gets the keeper of the most famous grass in te world is, well, the English weather.
"The biggest problem is still the rain," said Seaward, in his 10th year as the head groundsman at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. "It's that wonderful thing we have a lot of in England. Rain is the big bugbear all the way through the tournament. And the last few have been pretty bad."
Wimbledon is more than its famous Centre Court. It's a complex of 34 tennis lawns -- 20 for competition and 14 for practice. That's 3 1/4 hectares (7 1/2 acres) to cut, seed and roll - and keep puddle-free for two weeks.
"It's your family," said the 56-year-old Seaward, who works out of a series of sheds and a storehouse for machinery beside "Please Keep Off The Grass" signs nuzzled alongside Court 11.
Basically, it's high tech vs. the unpredictable English summer.
Lasers level the courts and a machine thumps away testing wear. The soil is scientifically uniform, seed research is ongoing and the grass is mowed daily to an 8-millimeter (1-3 inch) cut. And there's an experiment with ultraviolet light to beat stadium shade and England's long, dark winters.
Wimbledon is theater and Seaward is the stage manager, working alongside the director -- referee Alan Mills. He sports a blazer, gray flannel trousers and a club tie, but he looks "more at home in waterproofs." He's tense on opening day, exhausted when it's finished and ever mindful of the critics.
"I'm always glad when the first day is over," said Seaward, who directs a ground staff of 150 during the tournament. "At the end you feel dead. You're absolutely shattered.
"But while there's a lot of stress, there's also a lot of buzz about the place."
Former top-ranked woman Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, winner of four tennis Grand Slams but never on grass at Wimbledon, offered a famous quote a decade ago that's been fodder ever since for losing players departing the slick, quick lawns.
"Grass is for cows," she said.
Players a few years ago openly criticized Centre Court, which was saturated by rain and smothered by a seemingly never disappearing cover.
"You don't like to hear it, but you just get on with the job." Stiff upper lip? "I guess you could say that," Seaward said.
Translucent rain covers were introduced a year ago, allowing the grass to be covered for three days with 97 percent of light still seeping through. Huge fans were bolted to Centre Court and Court 1 to boost air circulation.
The weather may be English, but much of the grass comes from Dutch seed.
Wimbledon changed its mix of grasses five years ago, going to 70 percent rye and 30 fescue and eliminating bent grasses. And the strains are always changing. Another 115 new grasses are being tested, sewn in 1-meter squares at the Turf Research Institute in northern England.
"We want it looking nice and green, but we don't want a lush green grass," Seaward explained. "That would mean too much nitrogen. If we have it too lush, to an amateur gardener it looks very good, but to a professional tennis player it would be too slippery."
Iron is added a few days before play for a brighter hue of green.
The club budgets about $8,000 a year on seed with Seaward guessing he spends about $6,500 annually to maintain each court with labor and machinery costs additional.
Specialized lawn mowers cost about $6,500, and Wimbledon has 15. One-ton rollers cost about the same, and Wimbledon has six.
"The budget is fairly generous, to say the least. I get what I need."
The soil? "It's all British," Seaward assured. But not native to Wimbledon.
The Wimbledon mix is 21-22 percent clay and the rest sands and silt, deposited to a depth of 25 centimeters (10 inches). Below is 15 centimeters (6 inches) of crushed rock for drainage.
The clay-based surface can absorb about 290 kilograms per square centimeter (100 pounds per square inch), and it goes uniformly bald around the baseline during the second week.
"There's nothing we can do about grass thinning, but it wears evenly and players get used to the change," Seaward said. "We manicure the court, but there's nothing artificial."
"I don't think we'll ever find a grass that doesn't eventually wear," he added. "But we're always reaching as close as we can to perfection."
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