Why the Grass Is Always Greener at Wimbledon

Behind the perfectly coiffed grass courts lie millions of years of evolution—and a lot of modern science.

Published 12 Jul 2018, 11:44 BST
A groundsman cuts the grass on Centre Court at the All England Tennis Club on the ...
A groundsman cuts the grass on Centre Court at the All England Tennis Club on the first day of the 2018 Wimbledon Championships tennis tournament.
Photograph by BEN STANSALL, AFP via Getty Images

Every year, 256 starry-eyed tennis players flock to the smooth grass courts of Wimbledon. At the start of the two-week-long extravaganza, the lush grass glistens, each blade on the 54 million individual plants trimmed to a neat eight millimetres in height.

By the end of the tournament, that grass will have taken a beating of epic proportions—stomped on, slid over, sometimes salinised with frustrated tears—but somehow, still alive.

“The championship, it’s the year-round culmination of all the work we do,” says Neil Stubley, the Courts and Horticulture manager at Wimbledon. “But from day one, it’s just about damage limitation. The more play that happens, the more chewed up the grass gets—there’s just no way around it.”

Wimbledon groundskeepers spend a full year preparing the grass for its two weeks of abuse. Here’s how they draw on millions of years of evolution, decades of plant science, years of careful preparation, and hour-by-hour meteorology to keep it bouncy and verdant.

Green Beginnings

Today, grasslands cover nearly a third of the planet’s surface. But grass is a relative newcomer on evolutionary timescales.

The distant relatives of Wimbledon’s famous grasses appeared on the planetary scene about 70 million years ago—the very last nonavian dinosaurs alive may have snacked on some of the very first grasses. Once they took root, the plants quickly swept across the planet, twisting themselves into different shapes depending on where they ended up, from the tall and graceful fronds on the western plains of North America to the bushy bamboo in Asian forests.

Many grasses evolved in tandem with grazing animals like sheep and cattle, which trampled and cropped down the leafy blades as they ate their way across the landscape. So, grasses evolved to grow back from the barest nub of green left behind—evolving, essentially, to be mowed.

The short, dense, glossy turf that blankets the Wimbledon courts has its roots in the maritime climate of the British Isles. Ancient farmers let their livestock graze on native meadows, often centring their towns on a common grazing area. Eventually, these central, close-mown meadows became sites for sports and recreation.

Originally an indoor sport, outdoor “lawn tennis” didn’t take hold until the late 1800s, when the first games were played on modified croquet courts. By the time of the first All England Lawn Tennis Championship in 1877, the sport had graduated to its own specially designated grassy swards.

Early Wimbledon grass was a mix of native species, planted carefully atop a firm soil surface and trimmed by a horse dragging a small mower. But the turf was unruly. Dandelions and daisies would sometimes pop up, fairy rings occasionally bloomed, and the constant wear from players skipping across the grass meant it had to be replaced often.

In 1921, when the club moved to its current location just a few miles down the road, groundskeepers brought in strips of turf from a seaside town 350 miles to the north to cloak its new courts. But no one wanted to haul tons of turf hundreds of miles each year, so the team started its own turf nurseries, havens for the perfect green grass.

Turf Wars

By the mid-20th century, agricultural sciences were booming, and the sports world benefited. Researchers around the world were looking carefully at how to breed and manage grasses to make them more nutritious for grazing animals; more resistant to pests; faster growing; ever greener; and more perfect for lawns and fodder.

After the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI), in Bingley, England, took over development of Wimbledon grass in 1951, they attacked the grass courts with science. They tested pesticides to kill worms and herbicides to kill the daisies, new soil mixes to change the firmness of the ground (which affects how high the ball bounces), and fertilizers to make the grass grow faster, greener, more predictably.

But the key work started when they realised they could pick and choose the grass itself. Plant breeders sent them hundreds of slightly different types of seeds—“Limousine” and “Bingo,” “Jupiter” and “Barlindo”—that they grew into little patches and systematically tried to wear out.

The team built a machine—essentially a fake foot, complete with tennis shoe—that would stomp and slide and smear across the grass. They’d set it up, turn it on, and come back later to see whether “Brightstar” could take the stress, or if “Rambo” held up better.

“We made most of the progress in the 1990s,” says Mark Ferguson, the head of research at STRI. “We made huge strides initially, and we’ve not quite hit the ceiling yet.” But in his opinion, the current grass carpet—made up of 100-percent ryegrass with short, fine, dense blades and a firm root bed—is close to perfect.

Winning Streak

Every day during the tournament, groundskeepers test the court hardness, the soil moisture, the blade color, and how tightly packed together the plant are.

“What I do is, I get on my hands and knees and physically count the number of stems,” Stubley says. They also phone their on-call meteorologists to check on weather patterns that may sweep through in the next minutes or hours and change the slightest variable.

“Grass really exposes your game,” says Taylor Dent, a retired American pro who still holds the record for the fastest serve ever recorded at the tournament.

The ball bounces lower on grass courts than on clay or hardcourts used in every other major tennis tournament, so players have to respond quicker and stoop lower to return balls. Any unpredictability in the way the ball bounces makes the game more challenging.

So, while players train for years to hit on the Wimbledon stage, a vast science machine churns around them, quietly working to make sure that the grass on these stories courts stays firm, smooth, and consistent from day to day and court to court.

“On grass, the slightest amount of change—you really feel it,” says Dent. “And if you can’t get used to it, you just won’t win.”

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