The Grounds Team at the Edgbaston Priory Club, led by Grounds Manager Dave Lawrence and Assistant Grounds Manager, and son, John, this year oversaw the Aegon Classic Birmingham, featuring the strongest player line up in the event's rich history. With over half of the world's top thirty women players descending on the Birmingham venue, the eyes of the world were on the grounds team and their manicured venue like never before.
In their latest article, Dave and John talk about managing expectations and pressure, how the courts have evolved to become the best in the history of the club, and how keeping a tight-knit team with a strong morale was, in their eyes, the key to their success
Like most people in our industry, we view our season as starting in the previous autumn when the courts are renovated. It is then that the seeds are sown, literally, for what will hopefully be a successful summer of tennis the following year. As always, we entered the run up to the Aegon Classic with a lot of apprehension. Whilst we had completed a good autumn renovation, carried out a strong winter maintenance programme and then got the courts looking in good shape through spring, we are always nervous right up until the first ball is hit. No matter how much testing we carry out and how good the data looks (and, in reality, it did this year), there is nothing more reassuring then seeing high quality tennis being played, with as little attention being paid to the surface as possible! That would perhaps explain why the last few weeks in the run up to the tournament are always the most stressful - though having a strong team makes the chaos around us seem a little more organised!
Our team has evolved a lot since last year's event, with the addition of Steven Whitfield in the autumn. Steven joined us from the Nottingham Tennis Centre and brought with him a depth of tournament knowledge, having worked events there for several years. Steven's addition has not been the only one since last year, with us also adding another member of the Lawrence family to the fray. Wife of David, and mother of John, Sue Lawrence has also joined us in Birmingham. Sue has arrived from the University of Nottingham. Having found opportunities to progress limited, she has taken the opportunity to diversify her skill set whilst working under the pressures associated with a televised, international sporting event; not to mention the pressure of being surrounded by two rather close family members!
Of course, with all the changes in our team in the last few years, it's easy to forget we have a member of staff who's been at the club so long we joke that he helped build and establish the club! Anthony Knight has been involved with Edgbaston Priory for over ten years now, and his years of experience are vital to us. Whether it is knowing the members on a personal level, or knowing where just about everything on the site is (having probably been there when things were built or installed!), Ant proves that, while developing and diversifying our team has been useful, there still needs to be some consistency to the approach we take.
So, with the strong, full-time team we have around us, it's easy to believe that the run up to the tournament is straightforward and, whilst we have an idea of what to expect, that notion couldn't be further from the truth!
We are in the hands of a host of variables, whether it be the weather or external contractors, so every job we plan is subject to some negotiation and flexibility. It's this lack of an opportunity to stick to an ideal plan that creates the stress, but also the challenge we love. You also have to consider, that the answer to most issues that crop up on site is to turn to the grounds team. We're there literally 24/7 and tend to know the site better than most, so understandably the call goes our way - it certainly keeps the job varied.
In the last few years, we've found ourselves fixing stands, laying block paving, erecting fences and repairing carpet. We end up being joiners, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, photographers and more. And all this, on top of trying to do the job we actually think we're there to do - look after the grounds! Certainly, a day working with the grounds team during a major event, most likely at any sporting event, but particularly in tennis, would be an eye opener for most people.
The build for this year's Aegon Classic Birmingham commenced officially on Monday 18th May - a full four weeks before the tournament actually started. The build begins with the installation of the majority of the portable accommodation (porta-cabins, portable toilets, sleeper units) being delivered and installed. This is closely followed by the erection of the temporary seating for the event. Concurrently, the player hospitality areas and the additional staff areas are fitted on three of the indoor courts, where a stretched false ceiling is hung and temporary walls are built to create many rooms and offices. The last major part of the build then involves marquee structures being built on site to house the public catering facilities, a retail village and the corporate hospitality area.
Unfortunately this year, there were some major complications which meant the build was beset with delays, so much so that, in fact, we were out finishing projects by moonlight the night before qualifying commenced and the tournament site opened to the public! This included applying woodchip to ornamental areas, completing the laying of decking and even hosing down and cleaning car parks and paths where heavy plant had been driving during the build-up period.
It must be noted at this point that, as well as the five full time staff we have available (counting ourselves), our team swells during the Aegon Classic Birmingham with the addition of around thirty-five temporary groundstaff who also double as court covering staff. The majority of this team is recruited from the University of Birmingham and have little or no previous experience working at sports facilities, and certainly not with international standard grass tennis courts! For this reason, we go through a thorough induction and training process with all staff to ensure that they are fully up to speed by the time the tournament begins. This starts either on their first day of work, or prior to their first day of work. This covers everything they need to know for a standard day, including all the necessary health and safety information!
However, the area we have really developed our training on in recent years has been around the use of the court covers. On TV, it probably looks quite simple; run on the court and pull the cover! However, it is far from straightforward in practice. Every court has a mountain of furniture to be removed prior to pulling the cover on. In addition, we don't have enough staff to have a designated team for each court, so there are three teams who have to work separately, but simultaneously, in order to get the courts covered as quickly as possible. Whilst they don't work directly together, when covers go on, one team making a mistake can slow down the team following up behind, so plans have to be executed very precisely. In fact, we have been described as having worked to 'military precision,' so we guess our forward planning is working!
In order to get to the point where covers go on with such precision, we run training sessions with each team, where we show them a PowerPoint presentation, which runs through where they should be on a court and what they should be moving at any given time in the process. Then, weather permitting, we take the teams down to the courts to practice, and practice, and then practice some more! Of course, that's weather permitting! This year's team didn't have the luxury of practising in advance, as the weather was against us, meaning we never had a chance to run through the plans on court. In our eyes, which made it all the more impressive this year that the covers went on as quickly as they did.
Of course, with such a large team of people, keeping morale high is massively important, especially as we rely on the court covering team most when the weather is against us. On paper, it should be a pretty miserable job. That's perhaps where ensuring a good team spirit and a strong camaraderie between the full time staff and the temporary team, as well as amongst the temporary staff themselves, is vital.
We do a number of things to try and breed this type of environment. We firmly believe in leading by example and, if that means getting ourselves soaking wet and covered in every type of dirt imaginable, then that is what we do. We never ask someone to do a job we won't do ourselves first.
That said, we also try to have fun with the temporary team. We are all working over one-hundred hours a week, and so it is important to try and make the job enjoyable. Over the last few years, our team challenges have begun to gain some notoriety! This year, there were whole Battenburg cakes, apple pies covered in cream, and our personal favourite - the donut challenge!
For the uninitiated, the donut challenge involves everyone having a sugared donut placed in front of them. Everyone starts at the same time and the rules are simple. No using hands and no licking lips - the winner being the first to finish! In reality, the winner is irrelevant, the important thing is simple things like this break down barriers between people - it's strangely easier to find common ground to talk on when you look completely ridiculous with bits of sugar, jam and donut all over your face!
This probably all sound like it has little relevance to the grass courts, but that couldn't be further from the truth. It's much easier to focus on what we need to do with the courts when we know we have a good team that we can trust behind us and, this year, we were certainly in that position, which hopefully was reflected in the quality of the surfaces we produced.
As we've said previously, we firmly believe that our season starts the previous autumn, and the quality of the courts is dictated by how well the previous year's renovation went. Last autumn we hit the courts hard, using our Graden GB1200 to remove a huge amount of the surface, taking us back virtually to soil in places. Once we were happy the courts were 'clean' of any undesirable matter, they were all sown with Limagrain's MM50 grass seed, dressed with GOSTD Surrey Loam, and then luted and dragged for levels. We also carry out a treatment programme of ethothumesate to reduce the incidence of Annual Meadow Grass, or Poa Annua.
The result of all this, roughly nine months later, is the grass courts used for the Aegon Classic Birmingham. Obviously, there is more maintenance along the way, aeration in the winter, with plenty of mowing and rolling through the spring and carefully tailored nutrient inputs all the way through this. However, autumn renovation is definitely the most influential time of year in terms of the quality of our courts.
And so, for this year's tournament, it is fair to say we were extremely pleased with what we produced. That said though, the hard work wasn't over. Every court gets double mown and marked every day, regardless even of whether it is scheduled to be used for play or not (we mow and mark regardless, so that the overall presentation of the site is maintained - the courts always look better freshly cut and with crisp white lines).
This obviously requires an early start; normally the full time staff will be out working between five and six in the morning. Depending on the overnight weather, we may decide to inflate, re-inflate or deflate our inflatable court covers. By starting this early, we can ensure that (weather permitting) when the temporary staff start work at six in the morning, covers can come straight off. Every court is then dew-brushed to help disperse any surface moisture. Whilst the covers, in theory, keep the courts dry, they do draw some moisture up out of the surface, so this needs to be removed prior to mowing.
By seven, mowers will be at courts ready and the mowing team will get into full swing. We operate three Dennis FT610 cassette cylinder mowers. These are cleaned and set the night before, and always by the same member of the team to ensure consistency from one machine to another, and from one day to the next. As soon as the courts are completed, the marking team will then get into action. On a good morning, it takes around twenty to twenty-five minutes to mark in a grass tennis court. We re-string every line, every day to ensure accuracy.
To give some context to the accuracy required, if a court is off by any more then 3mm, then it can't be used for tournament play. Courts are checked for accuracy by the WTA referee and, with us having Hawk-Eye this year also, there is massive pressure to ensure measurements are accurate and lines are straight!
Assuming the weather has played its part, and things have gone to plan, mowing and marking will be complete by 8.30am on the practice court, and 10.00am on the match courts, one hour before play is due to start (9.30am for practice and 11.00am for match courts). This hour gives us time to fine tune everything. Courts are dressed and we're obsessive about making sure everything is exactly where it should be and looks just right.
We'll have a team going round wiping down any 'ghosting' (where the mower has transferred some paint residue from the lines via the rear roller) so that the courts look clean, making sure that any wiping goes with the stripes. Nets and posts go up early, so we can check from the top of the stands to make sure singles sticks and centre bands are positioned straight. We even make sure that players' chairs are all in line from court to court, and the same distance apart!
If everything runs as it should, matches will commence at 11.00am and, provided there is no threat of rain, we'll try (having been at work well over five hours) to go and grab some breakfast! However, we are at the beck and call of the tournament and are on call on radios all day, so the moment a problem arises we could be needed to go running!
The most obvious problem we have during the Aegon Classic Birmingham is the weather. A lot of fingers were crossed this year, hoping that we would find some better weather having moved back a week in the calendar due to the extended grass court season. Whilst we had some days of fantastic weather during the tournament, we did have several very challenging ones where we were up against it to get matches completed.
We have a system we work to when the weather looks like it will be against us, which has worked well for the last couple of years now. Grounds Manager Dave Lawrence heads to the top of our North Stand. With its height and views of the distant sky, it offers the best view of what might be coming our way. Whilst we look at a number of forecasts, we still find that Dave is the most accurate weather forecast we have. With fifteen years of working tennis tournaments and, therefore, watching the clouds, he's become quite good at predicting when we might be about to get wet!
Down by the courts, Assistant Grounds Manager John Lawrence will ensure that all the teams are in position, know exactly what they should be doing and have their radios turned on so that they can hear any potential instruction from Dave at the top of the stands. John will also go on to court, if play pauses, for the tournament referee to inspect the court. This means John is normally the one getting booed as the spectators in the stands realise that we may be thinking of pulling the covers on! However, John's role on the court is to act as an intermediary between Dave and the tournament referee, who we have a fantastic relationship with. We are trusted to make our own decisions on covering, and so John will be keeping the referee up to date on what Dave can see and what his plans are.
It's then just a case of waiting for the inevitable! Dave will give the call from the top of the stands and the court covering teams will set off into a blur of action! We have times we consider acceptable for covering courts, though we always tell the court covering teams that our expectation is quicker than anything they manage - even if they have surpassed our targets!
However, the job isn't finished there. As soon as the covers go on, there are decisions to be made. Do we clip the covers in place? Do we inflate the covers? How quickly might they be coming off? And, most importantly, how soon after they come off will we be able to start play again? All of this has to be factored into decisions that have to be made in seconds. We'll have the tournament referee, WTA supervisors and television producers desperate for answers. Obviously, this is much easier when we have prolonged rain, as the decision can be deferred. However, as is normally the case, the interruption will just be for a quick shower.
In order to make these decisions, Dave will remain at the top of the stand, monitoring the weather and communicating his decisions through the radio. As these are relayed, John and the full-time ground staff then set about organising the court covering team. We do everything we can to ensure that players get back on court as quickly as possible. If the covers can't come straight off, then we will tend to clip them in place and start to inflate them. The longer the weight of the cover is left sat on the court, the more moisture will be drawn to the surface and the wetter the court will get.
This explains why we do not cover unless we absolutely have to. The common perception from the public is that, when we pull the covers on, the court will be kept perfectly dry. However, there are occasions when it is better to let a little bit of rain on to the court rather than pulling the cover on, as we can keep the court drier by dew brushing the surface rather than covering.
That said, there are occasions where the covers to have to go on and be inflated. Where this is the case, as soon as they are clipped in place and there is a little bit of air under them, we will then send teams under the covers to hold them off the playing surface until there is enough air to hold them in place. It can take between ten and fifteen minutes for the covers to fully inflate but, in that time, we could draw enough moisture to the surface for there to be a significant delay when the covers are eventually removed. By holding the cover up, we stop this happening, keeping the court dry and reducing the length of the rain delay. The public are very understanding when the covers go on, if it is raining. However, they are less forgiving when there is a delay for no perceived reason! By taking the actions we do, players can be heading to the court within five minutes of the covers coming off.
The last part of this chain of events is taking the covers off. Once the covers are settled, or the rain stops - whichever comes first - we swing in to action, removing any standing water from the covers (this is done by going underneath and literally lifting/pushing it off), getting the air out from underneath them, taking the covers off, and then setting the courts back up ready for play. When the decision is made to do this, we will also have to give a precise time for when the players will be able to come back on to court. This is partly so the referee can ensure they are at the court when they should be.
The bigger reason though is that TV need to set their schedules around it, whether it be fitting in commercial breaks, studio time or any other filler, but making sure that they are ready to resume production of the on court match at the exact time we say we will be ready. There is certainly a lot of pressure riding on our shoulders, but it is this pressure which makes the job exciting and fun to do!
Regardless of whether it rains or not, there is still plenty to do during the day, such as keeping the site clear of rubbish and litter, servicing player areas with drinks, towels, tennis balls etc. and making sure courts are serviced between games, so emptying court bins, topping up drinks fridges, replenishing ice boxes etc.
We also have a significant workload to get through once play is finished for the day. Stands have to be litter picked so that rubbish doesn't blow all over the site overnight. We also do a full litter pick of the site and empty all bins so that we start the following day on the front foot. Paths are swept so that wood chip and gravel is back where it should be, ornamental plants are watered and any other furniture around the site is straightened up so that it looks tidy for the following day.
With regards to the courts, we will remove any debris as required. We will rotary mow behind the baselines, and also the lines themselves to ensure there is a clean surface for paint to transfer to when they are over- marked. We also repair any surface damage as necessary.
Whilst the WTA are taking a much stricter line with handing out punishments and fines, we still get instances where players and their racquets become temporarily estranged! Unfortunately, the court normally bears the brunt of their frustration, meaning we will have to repair the surface ready for the following day in order to ensure the bounce remains consistent.
Normally, there are two ways of doing this. For some, we will try and lift the damage and then re-pack underneath with fresh, dry topdressing. However, this method only really works with more minor damage. Where more significant damage has been caused, we will transplant in a new piece of turf, cut from the edge of the court so that the playing surface is consistent. Either way, these sort of repairs cause a significant amount of frustration!
The last thing we do before pulling the covers on at night is apply irrigation. We test the courts first thing in the morning, again just before play, and then again after play has finished. We take readings for the surface hardness using a Clegg Hammer, and moisture readings using a soil moisture probe. By means of a basic explanation, the more moist the soil, the lower the surface hardness. We aim for a surface hardness of around 200 gravities, putting us in the same sort of bracket as Wimbledon, ensuring that players get the opportunity to play on a surface as close to that as the courts at the All England Club as possible.
We take these readings so that we can then decide how much water to apply using the irrigation system. It should be noted that we will already have an idea of what we think the courts need, based on how they have played that day, what the weather has done, and our general perception of how the court feels. The scientific data is there to confirm what we are thinking, and to quantify what we are doing to those who may not necessarily understand why we are doing something!
The other decision we have to take, when watering the courts, is how long after we have watered do we wait before the covers are pulled on, and whether we inflate them or not. This relates to how we manage the soil to keep the moisture levels just right. If we pull the covers on and leave them flat, moisture will be held at the surface. If we pull them on and inflate, we are then keeping the cover off of the surface and allowing the moisture to move down through the profile. This all effects the following day's play, as we need the courts to be dry enough for play to commence, at 9.30am for practice and 11.00am for matches.
If covers are to be inflated, then we also have to stay up to ensure they remain settled. A slight change in the wind strength or direction can cause a significant amount of damage! Hence the length of the hours we do. In the run up to the tournament, and the week of, we regularly work over one-hundred hours a week, but that is what is required in order to get the courts just right.
The hours are certainly long, and extremely tiring (we wore pedometers during the tournament this year and we were regularly hitting 30km walked and run in a day), however it is all worthwhile when the stands are full, there are players on court, and the eyes of the world are on the court - or ideally more specifically the players on it!
We don't do this job for recognition - we do it because we love sport and we want to produce surfaces that people can enjoy playing on, and can enjoy watching top sport being played on. Ideally, we will never be seen and never be mentioned because, generally, that means we have done our job well, there have been no problems with the courts and that everyone is happy with how things are going.
That does, though, make the way the tournament ended for us this year slightly more special. For those who don't follow tennis, our champion this year was Angelique Kerber of Germany (ranked number ten in the world before Wimbledon). After her singles final was completed, there was also a doubles final played on the centre court. After that match, we were asked by the tournament referee and the WTA to wait in our centre court. It transpired that we were actually waiting for a visit from Miss Kerber, who presented to Dave the bottle of champagne she was given for winning the tournament. She also took the time to congratulate Dave, and the team, on the quality of the courts, and then pose for a number of pictures.
So, whilst we don't do the job for praise, it was extremely nice to be recognised for what we think we had achieved.
Moving forward, events like this will only drive us on to raise the bar we've set ourselves and improve things in the future. Of course, it does present additional pressures now, as people will expect us to achieve just as much next year, but then that is what makes our industry great. No two days or months or years are the same and, to achieve the same level of success next year, we may have to do things completely differently based on a number of variables.
It is this that makes what we do interesting and engaging, and drives us to progress year on year. Hopefully, in twelve months time, we'll be talking about another successful year and how we can improve again going forward - after all, the planning for 2016 has already begun!