The Devonshire Park Lawn Tennis Club in Eastbourne hosts one of this country's biggest tennis tournaments, The Aegon International. Neville Johnson went to the south coast complex to talk to their head groundsman, Roy Charman, ahead of this year's June event
Sussex-by-the-sea, there's nothing quite like it. Sea air and a bracing breeze freshens the mind and body. Except, this May morning, it's a howling gale and extremely testing. It's definitely not a day for playing tennis. In the shelter of Roy Charman's office, overlooking the delightful club and its tournament show courts, he concedes the venue does have a bit of a reputation, and I notice that one of his colleagues aboard a Toro Triple is clad more for winter than late spring as he trims some of the outer club court area.
There are no other problems to speak of being so close to the sea, he tells me. The seagulls and pigeons are a nuisance, especially at renovation time in September and October, swiping the seed, but otherwise turf care and playing tennis thrive in their different ways just a little bit more than a pebble's throw from the beach.
A finely tuned grass tennis court is as handsome as any golf or bowls green, yet the custodians are groundsmen, not greenkeepers. Roy reminds me that it's because the ball is played to strike the surface rather than move across it. Roy actually switched disciplines about twenty years ago after time as a greenkeeper at nearby Willingdon Golf Club and a period of self-employment, which included golf course construction and bowls green upkeep. He applied for a job at Devonshire Park in 1995 looking after the show and club courts and has been there ever since.
When Roy was first at Devonshire Park the idea was that he worked in tandem with Andy Bacon but, in time, he took sole responsibility for all of the playing surfaces, as head groundsman, and Andy, as Grounds and Tournament Manager, took on the mantle of looking after the Park's overall ornamental appearance and responsible for tournament logistics. It works well, and they have the support of two other experienced groundsmen, Dan Negus and Henry Dunn. Roy emphasises how essential it is that they can each do all of the jobs, and month after month they do just that.
Looking across the complex it would tempt anyone with an ounce of tennis in them. Devonshire Park was about to undergo its main annual changeover from club to major tournament venue. The Aegon, as it's come to be known, is just four weeks away and the Lawn Tennis Association will soon be calling the tune. Things are already gearing up for the annual week of world-class professional tennis, this year from June 14-21. The four or five courts alongside the Centre Court - yes it's just like Wimbledon, with a Number One as well - will soon be beneath a temporary stand. Roy hates what this does to these playing surfaces, but knows he can lick them back into top order once the stand is dismantled.
The LTA has, over the years, ploughed lots of money into Devonshire Park, as it has into other top venues around the country. This gives them exclusive rights at certain times, like the Aegon tournament, which takes precedent over club matters. The club effectively closes down from the end of May until a week after the Aegon is concluded, and the club's 120 or so members can watch, but not play, during this period.
Roy says he and his team have developed a really good relationship with LTA Tournament Director Gavin Fletcher. They all work well together to get the best possible playing conditions. There's always been good rapport with Wimbledon too and a regular two-way exchange of experience and advice over the years with Eddie Seaward and now Neil Stubley. With tongue in cheek he reminds me that the All England Club is "on a different planet" when it comes to financial resources.
Tennis, and grass tennis in particular, is experiencing a big uplift since Andy Murray's win at Wimbledon, Roy has noticed. He likens it to England winning the World Cup in Football. "It's been a real shot in the arm," he says. "Certainly, everyone here at Devonshire Park feels it. It was the kind of breakthrough that grass tennis had been waiting for."
Roy is fairly relaxed pre-Aegon. He doesn't mind television cameras eyeing what he's done. He says he's got used to it. This year, the BBC has it back on its schedule with BT Sport also there covering it as a Women's Tennis Association event. During the week itself, Devonshire Park's team of four get support from a fifteen-strong maintenance crew to keep on top of the daily routines.
Preparation and maintenance procedures for the week have got better and better year-by-year, says Roy. The way you prepare for a big tournament like the Aegon evolves, he reckons. Did we get that right? Can we do it better? He is very analytical and always welcomes constructive criticism. The bottom line, for him, is always to see that everyone - players, spectators, sponsors, and the LTA - are happy. He believes that, after twenty years, he's got it about right. Playing surfaces at Devonshire Park are as good as anywhere in the world, including Wimbledon, and that's an acknowledged fact in tennis circles.
Last winter's unusually high rainfall, but mild temperatures, did affect things at Devonshire Park. Whilst never actually waterlogged, some court areas were very, very wet for long periods into March. In places, grass growth from autumn re-seeding was pretty thin and Roy says he had to help things along with a little extra feeding.
"We lost a lot of our seed because of the heavy rain, but didn't have to resort to further re-seeding," he says. "Warmer conditions since Easter and into May have helped to thicken up these sparser areas."
"Preparations for Aegon have actually been as good as ever this year, and we look forward to the courts playing well."
I ask Roy what he thinks are the significant advances in turfcare, as far as grass court tennis is concerned. The emergence of dwarf ryegrasses heads his list.
"From a personal viewpoint, however, I reckon that, when establishing a new court surface, you don't get enough 'bottom' using solely ryegrass, and for all twenty-one of the courts here I go for 70% rye and a 30% mix of bents and fescues," he says.
He always opts for 18% clay topdressing and his standout preference is liquid fertiliser over granular. "It is more accurate and flexible, I find."
Roy uses a Techneat pedestrian sprayer with a 4-metre boom and, with a fairly coarse jet, gives no distribution problems, even with the Eastbourne wind factor.
What are the big issues for Roy in the world of turfcare? It's no surprise that the ever-changing controls put on fungicides and their use is irksome to him.
He is broadly 'green' and welcomes the acceleration in recent years towards prevention by cultural work and organic methods rather than the fast cure approach. He has an excellent working relationship with Headland's Technical Director, Mark Hunt, who he has known for twenty-five years. He comes to Devonshire Park regularly to do soil sampling and offer advice on particular problems.
The key to decent tennis court surfaces, Roy reckons, is most definitely stress relief. "If you have healthy turf in the first place, it is better placed to fend off any nasties that come along," he says. "This means getting the soil structure in good physical order. Fungus disease is quite rare on our courts because of this."
"There's always something that does come along though to put you on your mettle. Last year, for the first time, we had a problem with Pearlwort. Not sure where it originated, but it might have come in via birds or footwear. It's a weed that's very difficult to see, a tufted little blighter that looks pretty much like a small fescue grass to the naked eye. Even its little white flowers are hardly discernable. It popped up everywhere, on Centre and Number One courts and the club courts. It's things like this that keep you on your toes."
Mind you, in June 2003, the tournament - then sponsored by Hastings Direct - was presented with an out-of-the-ordinary difficulty on finals day, a telephoned bomb scare. Roy recalls an orderly evacuation of Centre Court and a two-hour halt in play. The finalists that day, Chanda Rubin and Conchita Martinez, took it in their stride and, despite all the necessary police action, the court was ready for play as soon as the alert was lifted.
"Devonshire Park basically provides a serious practice tournament ahead of Wimbledon, for players to work with their coaches," says Roy. "It is specifically aimed at attracting top players. That's what we are about. That's what the LTA want from us. This year is the fortieth that it will have been successfully delivered."
"It is much more than just a knock-up. Players come here to win, make no mistake. We have a good relationship with them too. They enjoy playing on grass, and certainly don't get the same injury risk as they do on other surfaces. Many a top player says as much to us. Grass has an inherent forgiving nature and its springiness is a welcome change for many of them."
The tournament, which has borne the Aegon name for five years now, has traditionally been a ladies' one since it was first introduced back in 1974. A men's ATP title has also been contested at the same time at Devonshire Park since 2009, though next year they are returning to Nottingham for the time being. Plenty of big names have been winners. The biggest of all, Martina Navratilova, was Eastbourne Champion eleven times. Many have gone on to do well at Wimbledon after playing at Eastbourne. Roy's personal favourite since he's been in charge of the courts is Kim Clijsters, who took the Devonshire Park crown in 2005. "She was always supremely pleasant, courteous and chatty," he said.
Next year, the gap between the French Open and Wimbledon fortnight is extended to three weeks, the latter a week later than it's always been. The 2015 ladies Eastbourne tournament is expected to be a bigger draw, but the main idea of the change is to give players longer to acclimatise to grass conditions. Roy welcomes the additional week's preparation time. "It will still be as hectic and enjoyable," he says.
Roy has the same relaxed attitude to club play at Devonshire Park. "It doesn't matter what standard they are, as long as they enjoy playing. We will do everything we can to see to that."
He points out that it is the men who tend to create more surface damage, especially on base lines. Ladies' play is just that bit less damaging and they are a bit more appreciative of what we do. He's more than likely pleased, therefore, that from next year it reverts to 'ladies only' for the big June tournament.
The club's playing season usually finishes second week in September. That's when renovation begins, heavy scarification using a Graden machine being the key to success the following year.
"You've really got to get all the rubbish out," says Roy. "As somebody noteable in turfcare once said 'when it looks like you've wrecked it, you've probably done just about enough."
Unsurprisingly, first half of October aeration, topdressing and re-seeding is an intensive time at Devonshire Park. The sound of racket on ball giving way to turf culture mechanics is always sad, yet inevitable, at this tennis heaven by the sea.
Will there always be grass court tennis? Roy thinks so; all the time the All England Club stages its Championships on grass. The demand percolates down from there. Looking around, long may it continue.