This year's 2013 Aegon Classic Tournament, held at the Edgbaston Priory Club between the 10th and 16th June, will be played on a brand new Centre Court, part of a £12 million, two year redevelopment; that's if it ever stops snowing!
The 2012 tournament was the 31st anniversary of the event which has been held at the club since 1982. The WTA International tournament is played on grass courts and is seen, by some, as a sister tournament to the Aegon Championships on the ATP Tour, which is held at The Queen's Club, London during the same week. Both events are used by the tour pros as warm-ups to Wimbledon fortnight. Maria Sharapova has been its most high profile champion in recent years.
The tournament attracts ardent tennis fans, along with a popular influx of school groups, who provide a great atmosphere around the grounds.
Following years of planning, and nearly two year of construction, work to complete Phase 2 of the club's ambitious development plan is due to be completed in May of this year. The project will transform Edgbaston Priory Club into one of the most prestigious leisure and racquets members' clubs in the country and will include:
- a six court indoor tennis centre
- a permanent grass show court capable of seating 2,500 spectators
- refurbishment of the existing tennis courts including those on Priory School land
- a four court squash block at the front of the clubhouse
- refurbishment of the existing squash courts
- a new gym facility
- a new group exercise studio
- a dedicated treatment/consultation room
- a permanent crèche facility
- an enhanced bar and restaurant for members, to include a sports bar, bistro, family lounge area, larger patio, events lawn and snooker room
- a function room capable of catering for up to 120 people and incorporating a bar and servery
- a multi-media meeting room
- a refurbished clubhouse including new larger changing facilities
- cycle park and increased parking spaces
In essence, this will be a brand new facility, but it is the provision of eight grass courts offering the the same specification as Wimbledon - of which the new centre court takes pride of place - that is exciting the members as much as anything else.
Overseeing the installation of the courts, initially on a consultancy basis, was David Lawrence, the former General Manager and Grounds Manager at the Nottingham Tennis Centre, where he had eleven years experience of working with grass courts. Previous to that, he had worked at Nottingham University. David was subsequently appointed Grounds Manager at Edgbaston Priory, a position he took up in March of this year.
I caught up with David just after his appointment in, what was, one of the coldest March days on record. All the courts were covered in snow.
David is well aware of the expectations of the members and the tournament officials in terms of how the courts will play when they open for the new playing season but, as he points out, he has not really set foot on them since Christmas due to the poor weather.
Like most grass court surfaces, the heavy clay/loam soil takes a long time to warm up so, with temperatures remaining well below average for both March and April, very little growth has been seen. "It really is just a case of waiting for the warmer weather to kick in, and applying some liquid and granular feed to encourage some much needed growth," explains David.
"I'll carry out some spring renovations - when it eventually arrives - to help reinvigorate the sward. Some light scarification and verticutting to remove any dead lateral growth, a light topdressing and overseeding with a 50/50 mix of Aberimp and Aberelf, with some bent and fescues seed added to help fill in the base of the sward, would seem to be the order of the day."
"It will then be a case of firming up the courts with a pre-season rolling programme and gradually bringing them into play. I've also been looking into and costing up the option of acquiring some grow lights if the weather does not improve."
David has also been busy interviewing candidates to help with putting on and taking off the ground covers during the Aegon Tournament. "I will need thirty-five in total," he states, "and it is imperative they are well trained in the art of handling the covers; they have to be able to cover a court in less than twenty-five seconds."
"Training will take place two or three weeks prior to the tournament, and it's a case of building up an event team that understands the requirements of a major tournament. They also need to understand that, if the weather is poor, the days will be long and tiring!"
"As the season progresses, I will be testing the performance of the courts for ball bounce, ball roll, hardness and traction to ensure they are meeting the requirements of the LTA. These test will be carried out on a regular basis with the information scrutinised by the STRI."
The LTA investment in the new courts is to ensure that more top tennis venues have the same specification courts as Wimbledon, and that the playing characteristics are as similar as possible.
David carries out the same maintenance regimes on all his natural grass courts to ensure they all play consistently.
As for machinery, the new acquisition's David has made for the club include the purchase of a Toro Procore 648 to aerate the courts, a Blec Uni Seeder and Metre-R-Matic Topdresser "Throughout this, my first season here, I will be looking closely at all of our equipment and evaluating what additional machinery we may need."
"We currently use Dennis FT 510 and 610 mowers to cut the courts and have to get them all ready for a daily 10.00am start."
"One thing I have negotiated is the option to wear Asics trainers when mowing," he says, advocating the need for comfort and support. "It is surprising how many miles you walk each day when mowing courts. On average, it's a two mile walk for each court mown, so eight courts mown twice and your are looking at close on sixteen miles."
David is looking forward to the challenge of ensuring that the Edgbaston Priory Club continues to develop into one of the top ranking tennis venues in the country.