Every year the Lawn Tennis Association and STRI visit lawn tennis clubs all over the country to assess their courts. In April 2019, they went to a Norfolk coastal town and two months later announced that Cromer Lawn Tennis and Squash Club had some of the best courts in England. Blair Ferguson reports
The report stated: "The grass courts at Cromer are some of the best grass courts in the UK. They are well managed, dominated by perennial ryegrass and are open for play for six months of the year. The courts and surrounds are always beautifully presented and are a credit to the grounds team."
The ten grass courts have been under the control of Head Groundsman, Matthew Jordan, for eleven years. Along with his assistant, Peter Cooper, they have produced grass courts that rival some of England's highest profile venues and have elevated the already high reputation of their club.
"We have a report from the LTA each year, and I think it has got better as the years have gone by," Matthew explained. "I'm proud to have received recognition for the work Peter and I do, and it's great for the club as well. The LTA go to all the clubs in the country, so they know what they're looking for and for them to commend us so highly is nice."
"One of the guys from the LTA meets the chairman to discuss finance and where the club is going long-term, and the STRI take soil samples, do ball bounce tests, Clegg hammer tests, moisture readings and count the species of grass. We had that back, and it was really good; we're over 90% ryegrass, and only Wimbledon could say they have 100% because they koro off their courts every year, which is something we couldn't afford to do here."
"They take grass samples from the baseline, service line and net. The baseline will be pretty much all ryegrass because they get fairly worn, so we replace them totally, whereas you have other species in the service line and net line because they don't get worn out each year."
"I'd love to say it's all down to me, but the courts were in good nick when I joined. I wouldn't say they were any worse back then, but I would say we've kept them at that high standard and maybe progressed them that bit more."
"When I first started here, organic matter was quite high and it's down to your renovation to sort that. We increased the amount we scarify, and we verti-cut throughout the summer, which keeps on top of that throughout the year, and it's gradually coming down. It won't reduce dramatically in one year, it takes time, so we are continually looking at that."
"The end of season renovation is a key part for us because, if we don't get it right then, we're in for a challenging year. We do our renovation in September and it consists of heavily scarifying it all first to get rid of the dead moss, the grass and lateral growth. Over the years, we've gradually done more and more of that, and that has helped progress the courts a lot. Then we spike it all and go over it with seed, loam and pre-seeder which obviously helps the grass grow, then we drag it all in and, fingers crossed, it will grow like it has done previously."
Head Groundsman, Matthew Jordan (right) with assistant Peter Cooper
"The development of machinery has been important, and our renovation is where we see most of that. We used to scarify with a walk behind machine, and to do ten courts five or six times in different directions took a long time. Now we've got an Allett BJB42 scarifier that picks up all the debris; and we go over with that in four different directions five or six times to really rip it all up. Once we have done that, we cut it and then spike it with a John Deere Aercore to get the moisture and air flowing through the ground. Then we use two tonnes of Kettering court loam to fill out any hollows."
Cromer has 150 adult members and 120 juniors, as well as teams and tournaments. Because the courts are busy throughout the six months, Matthew is conscious of giving the members as long a season as possible and opens the courts in the middle of April rather than the usual beginning of May. As well as keeping the members happy, it also gives him the chance to take advantage of warmer September weather for the renovation and avoid any cold snaps that could hamper growth.
Having the courts in prime condition has always been crucial for Cromer because of the tournaments they host. In county week, they host players from six counties and have constant tennis from 9.00am to 6.00pm. In junior week, play goes from 8.30am until it gets dark to facilitate 300 children and, during Norfolk senior week, which is in its 100th year at the club, 160 players use the courts.
Attracting such large numbers to the town is important for the club and surrounding businesses, and the ability to host these events relies heavily on the grass courts and their ability to take a high amount of tennis.
Matthew explained: "If the club didn't have the grass courts, it wouldn't be thriving like it is because we wouldn't get the tournaments we have or get tennis societies returning that have been coming here for years just to play on grass."
"Doing small things like rotating courts makes a big difference throughout the season. The four near the clubhouse haven't been played on for three days as they were getting a bit worn; it's because players often go to the closest one, and I'd do the same, so we rotate them to keep the wear equal because you want them to all to be playing the same during the tournaments."
"Cromer is a big holiday destination, so people go online and look at the tennis club, and then they come down here and think 'wow'. And there is a bit of a wow factor because a small town like Cromer has ten of the top grass courts in the country and it is a big draw for the town. For our junior week we will have 300 kids, and they'll bring their brothers, sisters and parents, and they'll stay in the town, and that generates a lot of money for local business."
Attracting young tennis players has always been important to the LTA and providing them with good courts to play on is a high priority. The 2019 report isn't the first time Matthew's expertise has been recognised by the LTA. Four years ago, he was asked to conduct the renovations at Felixstowe Lawn Tennis Club and, a year later, Frinton Lawn Tennis Club.
"The LTA want another Wimbledon champion because the profile of tennis gets a massive lift when it happens, so they want to promote grass court tennis as much as they can and, for that, they need courts for people to play on," Matthew said.
"Over the last three or four years, we've also been going to Frinton and Felixstowe to do their renovations. We help maintain and oversee their courts, spending a week at each venue to do the work."
"The LTA approached us because we're quite local compared to a lot of the other clubs, and we started off by doing the maintenance, and now we go down every other month and oversee both clubs. and do their fertilising and spraying applications for them."
"It works well because we do that and the LTA buy machinery which we share between all three clubs. It's beneficial to them because they want to keep grass court tennis up and running."
"I always think you should keep maintaining and updating machinery because, if things do go wrong, it'll cost you a fortune; that's why we always have our machinery maintained at the end of the season. The LTA has been really helpful over the last few years because when they do their visits, they'll also look at what machinery is needed and then it's up to us to get prices. This year, they are buying us a new sprayer because ours is getting old, but thinking of it as a cost between three clubs makes financial sense for them and their aims."
The involvement of the LTA during Matthew's time at Cromer has been an important factor in progressing the courts. Every other year, a two-day seminar is held at The All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon, for grounds professionals and those responsible for grass courts, which allows groundsmen to learn from the Wimbledon grounds team and apply it to their situation.
A couple of years ago, Matthew saw germination sheets on the baselines of some Wimbledon courts. Whilst he doesn't have the resources to trial them at Cromer, the Wimbledon team were happy to show him courts that were and weren't using them and, as a result, he now uses them successfully himself. Others in the industry, like head of courts and horticulture at the AELTC, Neil Stubley, are always happy to help and Matthew is keen to pass on that knowledge to others.
Taking on advice has been a contributing factor to Matthew's success so far and may prove to be important going forward. During our interview, we covered how he got the courts to this point, but he has now set a new standard for himself. In the immediate future, he isn't aiming to raise those standards, but consolidate them and continue to do what is best for the club.
"For next year, we just don't want to get any worse, so there is a bit of pressure. We want to keep the bar as high as possible, but there probably comes a point where we think can we go any further without spending more money? The only thing we could do is koro them all off, but the club wouldn't pay for that because there's no point because they, the members and the LTA are all happy. And it may not be beneficial for the club."
"The members are a good bunch, and they will always let you know their appreciation, which is always nice to hear because they are the ones that play on them all the time. And when we have our big events, people come from all over the country, and they appreciate the courts as well. It's great to get feedback like that."
"I'm not sure where the next level up is, but I think we just need to keep doing what we are doing. The club may decide they want to koro the courts or the LTA may suggest it. At Frinton, the courts are set in four blocks, and they had three of those koroed off and started again."
"One thing that would improve the courts is having an irrigation system put in. We have a couple of connections for hoses along the bank at the back of the courts, and we have a long hose and a travelling sprinkler which isn't a great way to do it because, sometimes, the sprinkler will get stuck crteating a massive puddle on there."
"The technology is obviously there to do things like that with app-controlled systems, but because of the weather and only being open six months of the year, the club isn't likely to pay for it."
"You can't beat natural rain, but last year was probably the hardest since I've been here in terms of keeping the courts alive. The heat came at the wrong time for us because it was leading up to a tournament, so the courts were really dry and being played on no end, so we didn't get a chance to irrigate because the system is too slow."
The club isn't afraid to invest when needed, and the quality of the courts is as much a credit to them as it is Matthew. They listen to his opinion, support his decisions and have a membership that does the same. Because of that, they have put Cromer on the lawn tennis map amongst some of the most renowned venues in England and will continue to stay so using Matthew's considered approach.
What's in the shed?
John Deere 2036R tractor with bucket
Toro Greensmaster 1000 x 2
Dennis G-series cassette mower with all cassettes
Allett BJB42 scarifier
John Deere Aercore
Rink SP950 topdresser
Hardi 200l sprayer
Hayter Heritage rotary mower