Grounds Manager, Ryan Middleton, certainly has his work cut out at Nottingham Tennis Centre; the largest in Great Britain and one of the biggest in Europe, where some of the world's best players will make their preparations for Wimbledon. Kerry Haywood finds out more.
This year sees the centre host the Aegon Open Nottingham men's ATP World Tour 2015 and women's WTA International events and a variety of County Cups. But, don't be fooled into thinking the centre is just about high profile events and playing tennis though. Its philosophy is to engage with the local city community, through a variety of initiatives and activities, including outreach programmes with schools and the disability community.
The variety of tennis courts includes: eleven indoor (three in a bubble), sixteen outdoor and nine individual grass courts and, if that isn't enough, there are plans to build a further four grass courts starting in July. All this means that Ryan and his team of two... yes just two, have their work cut out.
Ryan (36), has worked at the centre for an impressive eighteen years and, after spending a short two years on the grounds maintenance side, he watched the groundstaff on site and found the job and the prospect of working outside really appealing. So, he went to the Grounds Manager at the time, David Lawrence, who sent Ryan to Broomfield College to carry out his qualifications before becoming Assistant Grounds Manager. When David left for Edgbaston Tennis club, it was the perfect opening for Ryan to step into his very competent shoes.
Other than Wimbledon, the centre is the only venue to have WTA and ATP tournaments back to back and, as you can imagine, the preparation and dedication required is on another level.
On the run up to the tournaments, Ryan along with his skilled groundstaff Wayne Thomas (41) and Tatenda Mukome (29), aka Maurice, generally start at 6:00am and finish at 9:00pm if they're lucky. Once the tournament starts, the hours are extended to 5:30am - 10:30pm but Ryan describes it as an adrenaline rush and it certainly helps the time to pass quickly.
"I'm not one for being stuck in an office and it's great in the summer to be able to close the door on the admin office (as much as possible), and get out there to help the lads. We all work really well as a team, which is a bonus given how small it is. Their attention to detail is fabulous and they're always striving to get things right. I know I can leave them to get on with things and it will be done to the highest of standards. Trust is everything and the lads are worth their weight in gold... I wouldn't be able to do it without them."
Despite the team's competence, it would be an impossible task to prepare and maintain the site throughout tournaments without additional help. This year will see thirty court coverers start a couple of weeks prior to the competition and, after their full inductions, they will be given tasks such as watering hanging baskets, putting woodchip on areas, painting, weeding and generally ensuring all areas are looking their best so that the groundstaff can concentrate on the courts.
"Additional work is also created from covering the courts every night during tournaments," continued Ryan. "Even if the forecast said we're due a 100 degree heatwave and no rain, I don't take any chances with the weather and I would still cover the courts every night. This leads to early starts to remove the covers and air them before mowing and marking each day."
"When we're using the covers frequently, it can lead to the courts sweating so, this time of year, it's important to use Heritage Turf Disease Control as a preventative and to aid the control of leaf spot and fusarium. We walk the courts every morning and, as a team, we have a chat and plan for the day ahead. If we see anything disease-wise, we can act immediately."
The hard work is done when autumn renovations start at the back of August whilst the ground is still warm and the germination process has sped up. Ryan explains: "Autumn renovations are the key time for me, and I can usually tell after that how the courts are going to behave and play for the coming season. Firstly, we cut to 7mm before scarifying with the Graden five or six times in different directions, or more if required. Next we brush with the Dennis FT610, and mow again to clean up all the loose debris on the surface, and aerate with the Coremaster using solid tines. We apply pre-seed fertiliser, and seed with MM50, before applying two tonne of top dressing per court. Then we drag in with Lute and drag mat to work loam further into the surface. Finally, we cover the sufraces with germination sheets and irrigate to wash the dressing in and encourage the germination process."
"Recently, I have introduced a chemical called ethofumesate to the programme, which gives really good control of annual meadow-grass whilst not having an effect on rye grass. Koroing is fantastic, but it's also expensive and removes quite a lot of matter, meaning you have to replace it and start again and we don't have the budgets to allow this."
Winter and spring renovations went really well, and now it's just cosmetic work with striping in etc. The stringent renovation programme means that this time of year, the workload mainly involves a lot of verti-cutting (to a height of 8mm) in order to groom the thick sward. It looks great, but obviously if it's too thick it will play slow. A light dressing of GOSTD Special Mix Tennis Top Dressing, from Surrey Loams Ltd, is used to iron out any undulations that may have been there after the autumn, and obtain the quality and consistency of true, firm surfaces across all the courts. This is finished off with overseeding and rolling whenever necessary.
Ryan added: "Being a pre-Wimbledon event, it's very important to the players that they're on a similar surface so, if we use the same sort of materials, we're half way there."
"The soil profile is 24% clay and regular samples are taken. Looking at these results, we've had to significantly reduce the pH levels. The irrigation system is run off the mains so it's quite alkaline. We have a Gemini Trident system, with six sprinkler heads on each court, which is all run by a central computer. It's only been up and running since last year, and it's not only improved the end result, but also efficiency. Before this was installed, one of the guys had to use flags at each sprinkler head, and it was really tiresome; especially late at night."
With the ever changing weather patterns, Ryan continues to be proud of what the team achieve. "We haven't got an abundance of staff, nor a bottomless pit of money, but we're still getting really good results. Last year, we had snow in April when we were trying to carry out spring renovations. You can't control it so you have to just roll with it."
Budgets are controlled by Ryan and the board, and are split into six different sectors, including; grounds maintenance, materials, fertilisers, insecticides, machinery, overtime etc. They sit down and look at the takings for the centre and how well that's done before setting the coming year's budget. The venue is part of Nottinghamshire's City Council, therefore budgets are set and split between the eight other leisure centres. As part of the LTA, they contribute 40% to the running of the grounds, which helps greatly.
Equipment and machinery is bought outright and servicing is carried out by Arb and Grounds Equipment Ltd based in Derby. "They have the same grinding machines as Dennis, which is great and they turn things around quickly, whilst the City Council repair and service larger machines and tractors," said Ryan. "Whilst I'm not loyal to one manufacturer, it's important to have a good relationship with many, and the service I receive from Dennis is second to none. They are always striving to bend over backwards to ensure we are never struggling and that means a lot."
With plans for the additional four courts in place, Ryan feels the need to look at more tractor mounted equipment in order to reduce timescales and increase productivity, given the limited number of staff.
This time of year, the team obviously cut every day, and if all three of them are at full steam, they can do all nine courts in a couple of hours. They mainly use a Dennis FT610 with verti-cutting cassette and keep changing the direction. Then move on to the razor mowers, with the groomers off, to give the very distinct lines.
Obviously the work doesn't stop there when there are the eleven indoor courts and sixteen outdoor hard courts to maintain. The indoor courts are vacuumed three times per week, and a wet scrubber machine is used once a month if possible to remove dust and dirt, which takes a couple of hours.
The hard courts are Plexipave which is the same surface used for the Australian Open. It's an all-weather, extremely durable surface that provides varying degrees of speed and playability, whilst also being softer on the knees. As expected, these suffer from algae and can take up to two days to pressure wash all the courts.
Around the site, the high number of artificial surfaces means there's a lot of moss problems. There were a number of Poplars at the back of the site, which also created shade problems, giving only one or two hours of daylight to the courts per day. These proved to be rotten from the inside so they were removed and it's made a real difference to the surface.
Courts 1 and 2 are very close to the Cedar trees, but they're on a preservation list so they can't be touched, apart from pruning them back from the fence and thinning them out as much as possible.
The practice court areas are run by the British Wildlife Trust and, in the interests of ecology, they try to implement natural methods where possible, rather than using chemicals haphazardly.
Ryan describes the worm activity as a nightmare. "We switch clean to clear them, whilst also removing the morning dew, and apply Ringer to encourage the worms to feed lower and not cast as much. We also suffer with chafer grubs and leatherjackets and, recently an abundance of ants, but they seem to be under control now."
"This is good news, as presentation is obviously ranked highly given that the pro events are televised. This year, Eurosport will cover the entire event, as well as Nottingham TV & radio and the BBC. Visitor numbers increase dramatically when the big tournaments are on, and there's a great buzz around the venue. The site is transformed but it all looks pretty barren when everything gets taken down. Don't get me wrong, I do love it but it's nice to go back to normal hours. Once the major events are finished, we hold smaller county cups. We like to look after members with social and parent and child events, so the site remains busy throughout the season. There are also future plans for a multi-sport facility outside to attract other visitors."
Ryan continued: "The perception of groundstaff has improved and, in my opinion, is better than ever due to more coverage and publicity from tv commentators. Nowadays, if they see the sprinklers come on they might give credit to the groundstaff, which would never have happened before.
I still don't think people appreciate the science of what goes into it or the pressures, and the varied weather conditions are always a frustration. I'm always panicking about something, but that's healthy, as otherwise you would get complacent."
"I encourage the guys to attend shows to see new technology and machinery. At the end of the day, they're using it on a daily basis and need to be 100% comfortable with it."
What's in the shed
2 x Dennis Razor mowers
Mete-R-Matic® top dresser
Blec pedestrian seeder
New Holland tractor
4 inch marker
2 inch marker
Dennis FT610 mower with brush verti-cutter and cylinder attachments
2 x Hayter rotary mowers
John Deere hedgecutter
Billy Goat blower and vac
Wet vac for indoor courts
11 indoor tennis courts - (3 in a bubble)
16 outdoor tennis courts
9 individual grass courts
60 station gym including Arke and Kinesis equipment
Sauna and Steam room
Baseline Cafe with free WiFi
Pro Shop - Edge
Bike racks and lockers