Peter talks tennis at the New England Sports Turf Managers Association.
After a smooth and uneventful flight from Heathrow to Boston Logan airport, I was met by Mike Buras, the Grounds Manager at Longwood Cricket Club (which is actually a tennis club!).
Mike drove me to my hotel and that evening picked me up and took me to his home where I met his family and Nathan, one of the Longwood grounds crew, and scoffed a delicious chilli washed down with the first of many beers for which Boston is famous for.
The following day we drove back to the airport to pick up Neil Stubley, Head Groundsman at the AELTC, and then continued on the road for around an hour, arriving in Providence, the capital of Rhode Island late afternoon.
After settling in to the very impressive and imposing Hotel Indigo, Mike, Neil and I met up with several other speakers and delegates in Flemings, the hotel restaurant, for a meal and a drink or three. The rare steak I ordered could have been revived by a good vet, but was nonetheless delicious.
After a jet lag and alcohol and induced sleep, it was early to rise for an 8 o'clock start of the first day of the conference. However, the weather forecasters had by then stated, with near 100% certainty, that there was a "possibly historic" blizzard soon to be called Winter Storm Juno on the way that would hit late Tuesday and dump up to 3 feet of snow in a 24 hour period, coupled with 50 to 60 mph winds!
The Governor of Boston made the decision to declare a weather emergency, meaning it would be illegal for non-emergency vehicles to be on any road for the duration of the storm. Sadly, this meant that a very high number of delegates and some speakers would not be able to attend. The conference is usually held in March and was only moved because of a clash with the GCSAA conference in San Antonio, Texas. I had enormous sympathy for the organisers but also great admiration for the way they dealt superbly with ever changing circumstances. In the end, most speakers made it, but they all addressed audiences close to 80% less in numbers than had booked.
My own presentation was the last of the day, at 4:00pm, as part of a whole day of presentations and discussions purely on Grass Tennis Court maintenance.
The first presentation was by Tim Fleming, Grounds Superintendent at Germantown Cricket Club www.germantowncricket.org in Philadelphia on the trials he was carrying out with Bermuda grass on grass tennis courts. In all, there were three grass tennis clubs represented at the conference, all of whom had begun life as cricket clubs, hence the confusing names!
The climate in New England is one of extremes, meaning turf management can be extremely challenging. There are times in the summer months when the temperature can reach the 30+ degrees with 80%+ humidity. During the winter, the temperature can plummet to as much as 30 degrees below zero and, as I witnessed, snowfall can be heavy and persistent, leaving turf under snow cover for weeks even months at a time. If frost or ice forms on the turf surface, this can sometimes lead to total devastation of certain grass species including perennial ryegrass and poa annua.
Some of the leading grass tennis clubs in New England have poa annua, or Annual Blue Grass as it is known, as their dominant grass species. As I will mention, there is much research going on in to using perennial ryegrass, however, Tim's presentation was on his trials using Bermuda grass. Quite a challenge given its dormancy period and appearance and rather thatchy growth habit. Tim is trialling an area the size of two tennis courts and the feedback from users has been mixed.
The members' main concerns, and the reason for the trial, seem to be wear tolerance and appearance of the Poa courts, and certainly once the Bermuda sod had been laid and the colour changed from almost white to a deep green when temperatures increased, the courts did look from a distance aesthetically nice and less worn than the poa courts adjacent. However, from what I saw and heard, I have serious doubts that Bermuda turf can provide anything like the quality of surface that rye or even poa could provide. Tim has his work cut out, but I wish him good luck with what is a very bold experiment.
Next on the agenda was a superb presentation by Neil Stubley on the challenges he faces at Wimbledon www.wimbledon.com . Most of us are aware to a certain degree just what a mammoth responsibility Neil has, and his presentation illustrated the challenges faced and the totally professional way the ever changing challenges are dealt with. You can always tell when a presentation has been well received by the number of questions asked at the end, and Neil had a good half-an-hour of Q and A. I spent quite a lot of time in Neil's company over the four days and the experience confirmed that Wimbledon's choice of Head Groundsman was totally the right one. If you read this article Neil, thanks for being great company.
Next was a presentation by Nathan Salmon, Lisa Golden and Andrew Walsh from www.longwoodcricket.com/ about their trial using perennial ryegrass. Longwood hosted the first ever Davis Cup match in 1900 and has hosted previous U.S Opens and many highly prestigious professional tournaments. Boston has thrown its hat in to the ring for the 2024 Olympic Games and Longwood is the first choice for the tennis tournament should the bid prove successful.
The list of members and those who play at Longwood regularly is like a who's who of tennis. Sadly, the whole site was under two feet of snow (currently more than 5 feet!) when I visited, but some of the photos of all 25 grass courts being used in mid-summer showed what a special venue Longwood is.
Mike Buras, the Head Groundsman at Longwood, is an Ex-President of the New England Turf Grass Foundation nertf.org/ . I was privileged to spend a lot of time with Mike during my stay and he gave me a very comprehensive tour of Longwood, including a detailed description of its history and I met all of the staff that were doing the presentation.
Unfortunately one of the team, Lisa Golden, had contracted a bad case of laryngitis but this, in the end, didn't stop her from gallantly croaking her way through her highly informative part of the presentation. It was clear that the members of Longwood held all of the grounds team in high esteem and, likewise, Mike respected all of his team immensely and vice-versa. There was a clear feeling of togetherness and camaraderie amongst everyone.
The presentation focused around the trial underway on one of the 25 grass courts at Longwood using Perennial Rye Grass rather than the "native" Annual Blue Grass, or Poa Annua as we know it. I met the General Manager, of Longwood, Fred Groen, during a visit to Hurlingham in October last year, and it was following our meeting and discussion about the use of Rye Grass for tennis at Hurlingham that I received the invitation to speak on the subject.
The consensus amongst the turf professionals at Longwood is that Rye Grass courts produce a superior surface, providing greater pace and a more consistent and slightly higher bounce than the other courts. However, and this surprised me, the trials to date seemed to show that the Poa courts were more wear tolerant than the rye courts, particularly on the wear-prone base ends. Although all the members who played on the rye court stated the playing characteristics were superior to the poa courts (an opinion particularly prevalent amongst the better players), the general membership didn't like the fact that the appearance of the rye grass court deteriorated faster than the others. My own feeling is that the poa wears at the same rate as the rye but, when rested, recovers faster.
The Hurlingham Club is a prime example of a venue where aesthetics come a close second and often are more important than the more technical aspects of turf management, so I was sympathetic to the dilemma Mike and his team face. However the Hurlingham Club has 13,500 members, the vast majority of whom do not play sport and, as such, have little interest in the bounce of a grass court or the stimp reading on a croquet lawn.
Longwood C.C. is wholly devoted to tennis and the overwhelming majority of members actually use the playing surfaces. Therefore, in my opinion, and I think that of the Longwood team, what the courts look like, especially near the end of a season, should be secondary to how well they play. This is the issue that Mike and co have to tackle and, after 2+ years, one that still has to be overcome. Mike is very confident that if and when he is given the go ahead to increase the number of rye grass courts, he and his team are very capable of ensuring the courts are available for the same period of time as the poa courts, whilst providing a superior playing surface.
As previously mentioned, New England's weather extremes are a significant factor in the choice of grass species for natural turf surfaces. When you see how much research is going on over here into dealing with "winter kill", it brings home just how harsh conditions can be.
The next speaker, Dr Scott Ebdon https://extension.umass.edu/turf/faculty-staff/dr-j-scott-ebdon gave a technical but, nonetheless, very interesting presentation on the research trials he is carrying out into grass tennis court wear in the New England region.
After a break for lunch, we were then treated to a fascinating insight in to the world of professional tennis by 1982 Wimbledon semi-finalist, Tim Mayotte, who spoke eloquently about the challenges of playing on different tennis surfaces.
It was heartening to hear that he was adamant that the most challenging and enjoyable surface for any tennis player has always been grass, and he lamented the decline of the natural grass surface in professional, competitive and recreational tennis.
He made it very clear that it was new technology that had vastly changed the game of tennis over the past 25 years. Whilst initially it was developments in racquet technology which shaped the advances in players' abilities, it reached a virtual plateau in the early 2000s. It was more now the choice of strings and string tension that has brought a new dimension to the game, giving each player distinct advantages and disadvantages.
It was this new technology that forced a rethink in the way Wimbledon's famous grass courts were prepared more than any other factor. He suggested the serve volley game, so popular on grass in days gone by, could no longer be effective on grass due to excessive spin gained. I suggested that maybe, rather than having to change the way the surface was prepared, it would be easier and just as effective to ban the use of synthetic strings for grass court tournaments. Tim replied that he had never heard that idea before, and although commercial interests would mean it wasn't practical it would encourage the return of a more diverse style of tennis.
He was known as "Gentleman Tim" when he was on the professional circuit and I had the pleasure of meeting him before his talk and quickly realised why he had earned that tag. A really interesting and warm man who spoke for nearly an hour without a single note and had us enthralled throughout.
I have to confess that I ducked out of the next presentation, which was on underground irrigation for clay tennis courts, partly because it was a subject that I had no professional interest in, but mainly because I was on next and my digestive system was in turmoil and I needed to be elsewhere!
It is fair to say that once my bid for the Wimbledon job had failed, I thought that my chances of being invited overseas to speak in a professional capacity had gone to. When I received the invitation to travel to Massachusetts to do this presentation, I confess to being almost overwhelmed with excitement and immense pride. My first thought was simply, WOW!
So, as soon as I started putting the Power Point presentation together, I knew that the first word to pass my lips when I stood up on the stage would be… WOW!
Due to Winter Storm Juno, instead of addressing around 100 delegates, there were only about 30 and, in a way, this made it all the more challenging as the atmosphere was far more "intimate" than I was expecting. However, when I was finally introduced, an unexpected but very welcome feeling of calmness seemed to envelop me and I soon relaxed and started to enjoy myself.
I was lucky in that I had been asked to talk about more than just the grass courts at The Hurlingham Club, and so I had an opportunity to stray from the core subject which obviously had been discussed at great length throughout the day. Having said that, the "meat" of the talk was on what I had done in my 16 years at the club to improve the courts.
I spent quite some time explaining the inherited problems, such as excessive thatch, poor soil binding qualities and worm problems, and how we gradually changed the soil and seed type to what it is today.
The section I did on the renovation of the grass courts destroyed by the outdoor pool project clearly went down well, and I also elaborated on the idiosyncrasies of preparing a croquet lawn and setting hoops, maintaining a golf course that is only open in the winter and managing the conflict between the different sporting sections, all of whom think their sport should come first.
As with all my presentations, I finished off by stressing the importance of good team work and making it clear that it is "the team" that really make the grounds what they are and deserve the praise that so often comes my way.
I got a very warm round of applause and spent about 20 minutes answering questions before finally leaving the stage and breathing a very deep sigh of relief and satisfaction.
So, job done. Well, not quite, as due to one of the other speakers being unavailable because of the snow, I was asked to do a half-hour version of my presentation on the Wednesday afternoon; so, after some quick editing on a laptop kindly lent to me by Neil Stubley, I had the pleasure of going through the whole pre-talk stomach churning nerves again. But it was all worthwhile as, again, it seemed to go down well with those in attendance.
I spent seven days all told in Boston and Providence and could, but won't, write too many words on the wonderful people I met, the delicious food I ate and copious amounts of Boston Lager I drank during my amazing adventure. But………
I will mention that I popped in to the original "Cheers" bar in Boston that inspired the sitcom and was a little disappointed that in fact they didn't know my name; but it was here that I drank a pint of Boston Red Brick Ale which was, without doubt, the best pint of the trip.
I must also mention that I met up with and had a great laugh with Ian Lacey, once of the IOG and briefly Everris, who has only recently relocated to Boston to set up a turf consultancy branch of a company, called Tow Irwin. Tom Irwin hired a pub for the Wednesday evening and threw a brilliant party with free beer, free food, and live music, and even a pool table and two dartboards. What more could a Brit aboard ask for. It really was a superb evening.
Ian was kind enough to put me up on the Friday night and run me to the airport at 4:00 am Saturday morning, but only after taking me out for yet another slap-up steak dinner in the company of his colleague Brian.
Both Neil and I wanted some snow while we were there, but I think we must have wished too hard as prior to our arrival they had received 5", and since our departure they have received another 72", and it's still snowing!
Despite this, my plane home took off on time and I spent the 6 hour flight reflecting on quite the most enjoyable week that anyone could wish for.
I hope, and I think, that I justified the time trouble and money spent on me making the trip. I have memories that will never leave me and, most of all, I have made some friends that I sincerely hope I will get the opportunity to meet again in the future.