It's hot, seriously hot. The thermometer is on its way to 33OC. Anyone for tennis? Surely not. Yet, as seasoned tennis groundsman Tony Martin and I chat in the cool of the clubhouse, there are plenty of members of the Surbiton Racket and Fitness Club out there serving and volleying on the sumptuous grass courts and loving the dizzy heat.
Since 1996, Tony has had three spells as Head Groundsman at the club, and six years as a freelance grounds advisor. He's been in charge there now since 2012. He's very much part of not just thriving club tennis, but a resurgence of the club's place as a venue on the international tournament calendar.
The Surrey Grass Court Championships, first held at the club in 1904, had always been a valued forerunner to Wimbledon. After a seventeen year period, when they were staged elsewhere, they returned here in 1997. They were then renamed The Aegon Surbiton Trophy and were part of the UK's international professional tennis scene, the ATP Challenger Series for men and the ITF Women's Circuit. In 2009, with the involvement in international tennis of sponsor's Aegon, the event switched to Nottingham, but returned last year to Surbiton.
After two successful tournaments, The Lawn Tennis Association and The All England Lawn Tennis Club announced, this summer, an increase in the prize money for both the men's ATP Challenger and ITF Women's Pro Circuit events at Surbiton next year, so the club's place on the grass tournament map is assured and growing.
On the tournament playing side, this year's ladies single's winner, Marina Melnikova from Russia, was awarded wild card entry into the Wimbledon Championship's draw on the strength of her victory. A previous winner of the men's title in 2007 was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Andy Murray's quarter-final opponent at this year's Wimbledon. Yen-Hsun Lu, this year's men's winner, played him on Centre Court in the 2nd round.
In the words of Club Director Roy Staniland: "We are really proud to be part of the pre-Wimbledon calendar and, now that the prize money is so much bigger, we look forward to staging world class tennis for many years to come. Our thanks to both the All England Club and the Lawn Tennis Association for their support."
The club was founded in 1881 as the Berrylands Lawn Tennis Club. It had 200 members, using eleven grass courts, the same number, incidentally, under Tony's care now. In the Second World War, what are known as the lower courts were dug up and used as allotments, but were relaid as part of a major reconstruction between 1946 and 1948. These are the courts that please members and international players and sponsors so much today.
In 1975, the club was renamed Surbiton Lawn Tennis and Squash Rackets Club and, soon after, The Junior International Championships were held here each summer, attracting then unknowns like Stefan Edberg, Pat Cash and Jim Courier. This is now a national tournament for junior players.
In 1999, the club changed its name again to what it is today, Surbiton Racket and Fitness Club. The extension of year-round facilities beyond tennis was the reason for its evolving ID. As well as tennis and squash, there's a fully equipped fitness suite and, with the introduction in 2005, thanks to LTA loans and grants, of a dome cover for two of the hard courts, all-weather tennis is now available to members.
One of the grass courts was sacrificed for this most recent club development, so twelve became eleven. An additional hard court was built in its place with the new dome covering it and an adjacent one for over winter use. Tony thinks it's a shame to lose any grass courts, but understands wholeheartedly that, in this case, it was good for the club and for tennis.
The other weather combatting aid the club uses is an inflatable cover for courts 1 and 2 for rain interruptions during tournament play. It takes extra manpower to get this in place, but Tony says there are always plenty of willing members to help, if the need arises.
"Grass does seem to be the most sought after surface for tennis here in summer, but courts have to be given plenty of constant attention to get a decent playing surface. Ours are," said Tony.
"The Surbiton Club courts are not constructed courts, like Wimbledon, with concrete base and specific drainage. They are simply maintained areas of fine turf."
"There is no means of taking excess water from the surface. It's all natural drainage, plus aeration of course. It's a skill-based, round-the-clock, round-the-calendar job, but obviously there's a limit to what you can do."
Tony's brief is a simple one - to maintain and improve surfaces with special attention on the annual international championship. He has one full-time assistant, Milan Stojsavljevic, a young Serb who looks every bit a Djokovic in the making, but is apparently set on a groundsmanship career. He came as a helper for last year's tournament and has been here ever since. Formal groundsmanship tuition is on the cards, but he's learned a lot already under Tony.
Tony also gets in a summer temp for the May to September grass court season, and a dozen or so part timers for the build-up to and during the big tournament in early June.
He topdresses each of the courts with 22% clay loam, and has done regularly in the twenty or so years he's been at the club. There's a natural slope over the whole grass court area, with terracing between the upper and lower court sections. Rainwater moves in one direction, so the five top courts (from 4 to 8) dry out more quickly. The bottom six can be more verdant because of a high water content, but Tony does sometimes have to forbid play on these in very wet conditions.
"It's the bottom courts that hang on to any excess water and, even in an average summer, play can occasionally be restricted because of water filtering down from the higher courts."
September is Tony's busiest time. Starting first or second week, the courts are taken out of service in three stage batches for refurbishment work. This allows members to carry on grass surface playing on a reducing number of courts, and it means he can do important jobs in reasonable conditions. Scarification, aeration, seeding and topdressing are the essentials ahead of the over winter close down.
"We now have all the equipment to do the work ourselves thanks to club investment in recent years. The return of the big tournament in 2015 has been a factor, of course," said Tony.
Most of the equipment Tony uses has been bought new in the last four to five years and, for the September refurbishment notably, there's a tractor-mounted scarifier.
"Warm and fine early autumn weather means players want to carry on playing. I understand that. It has to be a compromise. I have to get the work done then because I can't gamble on decent germination if it's left until later."
Tony re-seeds as part of autumn refurbishment, using Limagrain's MM50, which is bred for grass tennis courts and resilient to the wear and tear of play.
There is no further grass court play after early October and all eleven courts are 'put to bed' until 1st May the following year.
Over the winter months, maintenance continues by keeping them trimmed regularly, as long as conditions allow, to 13-14mm. Tony says he does the first two or three cuts after germination by rotary, because it doesn't pull new growth. He will then switch to cylinder and, during the playing season, reduces the cutting height to 8mm.
Mowing is 100 percent pedestrian and each court is cut three times a week during the playing season, and Tony endeavours to get all mowing completed early in the morning before members arrive at the club.
Between May and September, each court gets monthly applications of Everris Greenmaster liquid fertiliser with slow release granular applications in autumn and spring. Tony puts a lot of value on his use these days of growth retardant Primo Maxx. He says that, as well as usefully reducing height a little, it also thickens the sward noticeably.
He does occasionally use seaweed extract products, and has found monthly applications of wetting agents a help in seasons past, although he'd not had need of them prior to this rare hot, dry spell in mid-July.
As far as disease control over winter is concerned, Fusarium and Red Thread pose a threat, but are not a huge problem. Tony says he's found that a single application of Chipco Green keeps things in check, generally. He conducts regular aeration to aid drainage, and always has his fingers crossed for snow and frost-free winters.
There are no pest problems to speak of, though casting worms are an unwelcome irritant. Tony uses a twice-yearly application of liquid insecticide Ringer to try and keep these in check.
"In a season which is short anyway, wet conditions like this year are frustrating," said Tony. "We've been flooded several times, and had to let nature take its course to a large extent. As well as curtailing play, it holds up maintenance routines. Getting on to the courts to do the jobs that need doing has been doubly hard this year."
I feel privileged - and lucky - to be visiting the club on the hottest day of the year. Everything looks so perfect.
The STRI does an inspection twice a year, on behalf of the LTA, to see how the courts are faring and being managed. Visiting agronomists carry out density tests, check thatch levels and take various other soil measurements. A report goes to the LTA and copies are sent to the club. Tony says their findings are always appreciated and helpful.
With all the club's investment and the sound routines put in, Tony thinks the courts are getting better year by year - always his aim as a groundsman.
Official recognition of excellence comes in the form of LTA Tennis mark accreditation as a place to play the game. The club works with players of all standards and abilities and has been recognised for its work. It is also a Disability Hub. It is an active Surrey club and has been successful in being awarded a Surrey LTA support package.
Tony deals with all outdoor matters. His other responsibilities are three artificial clay courts and six hard courts. The artificial clay surfaces have to be brushed twice a week, plus daily weed and debris removal by hand. Like bunkers at a golf club, users of these courts are supposed to use drag brushes after and during play to keep them looking neat. As far as the hard courts are concerned, it's pretty much Billy Goat tidying up and net care.
The Surbiton Club is an active and highly successful tennis coaching venue, as well as a squash and fitness centre. About 350 juniors and 125 adults get professional tennis coaching here each week.
Not as grand as Wimbledon perhaps, but the floral court surrounds say a lot about the Surbiton club and Tony's attention to detail.
What's in the shed?
Tractor-mounted Sisis TM1000 scarifier
Tractor-mounted top dresser
Dennis G760 with vertical-cutter
Ransomes Matador 71
Ransomes Greenspro 22
Hayter Harrier 48 mower
Billy Goat vacuum
Mitsubishi TM 2000 tractor
Groundsman 460HD aerator
Sisis tractor-mounted Variseeder