Can you build a grass tennis court in three days? That was the question I was asked by a marketing executive representing American Express in early April.
However we costed the project, reviewed the logistics and embarked on what can be described as a unique project. I'm not sure whether a temporary tennis court had ever been built before in such a short time span, although the lay and play principles for winter sport have become a tried and tested method of mid season construction. The difference being that for tennis and indeed cricket, ground hardness and grass length are all-important and usually take months of preparation and hard work to achieve that perfect surface.
Now I am the first person to say that we were never going to achieve the quality of Wimbledon, Queens or Eastbourne in a few days, and the client was fully aware of the associated problems that could occur, but our remit was to provide a surface that could at least host a reasonable game.
At first we looked into the use of the GreenTech ITM system, growing the court in pallets prior to the event and then importing them for play, but for reasons of time the marketing company didn't venture further. It was decided instead to import loam and lay custom grown turf.
The site earmarked for the event was at Potters Field Park, between the GLA building and the foot of the south side of Tower Bridge in London. This had also recently been the venue for David Blains living in a box stunt.
Well again, everything is possible so we offered our critical comments and costed the additional court for them.
With dates agreed, we finally circled in on our first venue, down in Newham on the East End Docks on Thursday 24th June. We had 26 tonnes of loam, supplied in 1-ton bags from GSB Loams delivered in the afternoon. The
I spent the afternoon, transferring the loam from dry land to it's new home, along with wheelbarrows, shovels and rakes.
I'd enrolled the services of a number of Groundsmen from London venues to help us in this project and after they had all finished their normal day's work and travelled over we started to spread the bags of loam across the pontoon surface. I had originally decided on using agency staff for the job, but having made a few phone calls was delighted that so many competent Groundsmen were willing to be involved in such an unusual venture. Between the two sites and amongst our own staff, I was ably assisted by some of The Hurlingham staff (Grant, Matthew, Yani and Dan) and Grounds Manager Peter Craig, Chris Parry and his assistant Dan from Harlequins, Martin Chivers (Ex Fulham) and Darren Baldwin from Spurs.
Fortunately the weather was good, although there was a hell of a breeze coming down the Thames estuary. By mid evening all the loam had been spread and compacted by foot. Levels were being established and the work seemed to have gone quite well. The only problem I had was that England were playing Portugal in the quarter final of the Euro 2004 and all of us wanted to see the game.
I'd arranged with the boat yard owner the use of his porta-cabin and a rather ancient black and white TV set, and after covering the loam with tarpaulins and sand bags, we settled down to watch what became a disappointing
The next morning Laurence and I removed the sheets and finished grading the loam to level. We consolidated the loam again, using that famous pigeon footed technique, used loots and rakes to finalise the surface, and hoisted the tools back to the quayside.
Meanwhile at Tower Bridge, Mean Fiddler Productions were in the process of building a stage ready for us to start constructing the main court. We took delivery of forty tons of loam, delivered loose in bulk again by GSB Loams, and sheeted the pile over.
Our first major problem was now highlighted as there were gaps in the stage floor, gaps that would allow the fine, dry loam to fall through like sand in an hour glass. We decided to help the stage crew, and our twelve strong team used about fifty rolls of gaffer tape to seal the stage floor. By about 9pm we were in a position to start importing the loam onto the stage from the production yard, approximately 40 metres away. One of the prerequisites of the local authorities granting a licence for the event was the non-use of vehicles on the site. This meant to all intent and purposes that the loam, turf etc, as indeed the staging, had to be moved with non-motorised forms of equipment. To you and me that meant wheelbarrows and pallet trucks.
By early Saturday morning, the pontoon was now a grassed area, and the majority of the loam had been imported onto the stage at Tower Bridge.
I'd arranged with The Hurlingham Club to hire some of their machinery and a set of rain covers, and drove down the embankment to Putney to pick up the equipment and Grounds Manager Peter Craig. By lunchtime the rain looked to be coming, and after a call to the duty forecaster the afternoon didn't look too hopeful. There were big screens up at the Tower Bridge site showing Wimbledon's play each day, and Eddie's staff at SW19 were
Fortunately we had managed to cover the court before the loam became sodden, but with the harvested turf now arrived on site, I hoped for better Sunday weather so we could get the loam prepared and the turf laid. While most of the staff went home or back to their hotels, Peter, Laurence and myself took the mower and marker over to the docks and set about mowing and presenting the court. I'm not sure how many times we cut the court, but it looked better with every pass. It took us an hour or so to set it out for marking, having decided on a 10% reduction in measurements, so that the court would fit into the area.
What a gorgeous Sunday morning we woke to, sunshine and no clouds in the sky. We started well at the Tower Bridge court, removing the covers, raking and consolidating the loam, and using a large loot that three of us could pull around the court to
By early afternoon, two thirds of the court had been laid, and some of the lads continued to dress areas where the laying machines had to run over and turned on. I nipped back over to the docks, running the mower over the court a couple more times to get the presentation as good as it could be. There were people from American Express there as well as the marketing company, and they were busy putting advertising signage around the boat.
The rain continued and we debated calling it a day, but that would probably have meant ditching the rest of the turf and getting another delivery for the Monday, as well as the Inturf crew having to stay on to finish the job.
An early start on the Monday, as I was picked up from Earls Court at 4:15am by the marketing company and we made the short journey to Putney Pier where the pontoon was moored. The heavy rain the previous evening had made for a couple of soft spots on the court where water had seeped under the tarpaulins, and at this stage it was too late to do much about these areas, so we removed all the tarpaulins and sand bags to the tug that was to pull the barge down stream to pick up our guests at the London Eye.
It was decided that I stay on the barge to repair any soft areas, and so I explained to both players where they were, so that they could avoid them if possible. The main trouble spot though was right on the tee of the service line, in the middle of the court, just where Mr McEnroe wanted to play his volleys from!
There was an accompanying boat armed with the rest of the press, and as we left our moorings at Waterloo, this boat travelled alongside us while the players enjoyed a rather unique knockabout.
While repairing the soft spots periodically, I also ended up being a ball boy for the hour trip. Both players seemed to enjoy themselves immensely, hitting tennis balls to spectators on the bridges and enjoying some good rallies. Mr McEnroe played his usual histrionics with the famous 'you cannot be serious', in fact his list of complaints were liberally stretched to include 'the boat was rocking' and ' that bridge got in the way'. By the time we reached Tower Bridge for the rest of the press to jump on board, I was glad to get off.
The floating court had done its job, there had been a few low bounces, but the soft spots weren't noticeable and everyone was delighted.
Late on in the afternoon, we returned to the docks to de-rig the pontoon, removing the nets and the ball stop netting and arranging the disposal of the turf and loam.
The tennis court was to be the centrepiece to Wimbledon at Tower Bridge. The four-day American Express event recreating the experience of Wimbledon by bringing the sight and sounds of SW19 to SE1. Members of the public invited to watch live tennis action from The Championships as well as the chance to try out the tennis skill zones and experience photo opportunities with the stars. Classic Wimbledon fare was also on offer in the form of Strawberries and Cream with glasses of Champagne and Pimms to bring a real taste of summer to the City.
The venue was also set to stage an exclusive music concert; US R'n'B sensation, Alicia Keys, who had signed up to play an exclusive and free live concert for American Express. The tennis skill zones included a Speed serve wall and a kid's hard court for coaching.
Martin and I put together an enclosed netting arena around the 3 metre high speed serve wall that had been constructed in another area of the park; after much cable tieing, we had produced an area ready for play. We then used some emulsion and painted permanent lines on a kid's court that was made of ply boards, built on a low scaffold platform.
With the turf now slightly soft, I continued to mow the court, each pass improving the levels. Martin started to fork any small problem areas as well, adding or removing loam as required. By the end of the day, the court was looking good, it was firming up nicely and the colour was improving as we looked.
Another very early start as the big day was upon us, the court looked even greener than the night before, the iron and seaweed extract obviously doing its job; more mowing, this time reducing the height of cut with each pass. By the time I finished cutting, we were now at 7mm with just two small areas about the size of a tennis ball scalped. This was followed by a strong over mark of the whole court. Now we had a tennis court on our hands. We put up the centre net, the umpires chair and players seats.
With fingers crossed, the event approached, the crowd started to build in the temporary stands surrounding the court and the arrival of the players was eagerly anticipated. Although threatening, the weather held, and at about 7pm Pat Cash, Monica Seles, Angus Deayton and Tony Hawks walked onto court in front of a crowd of about a thousand people. The crowd were housed on three sides, on temporary stands, again built purposely for this event; the fourth end housed the hordes of press, here for the Sport Relief event.
We watched the knock about with apprehension, worried about how the ball would behave, it seemed to travel well, bouncing up well and allowing all the players to return shots comfortably. Then there was the game, which became high spirited and competitive to say the least. In the entire match there were probably only four or five duff bounces, far too few to spoil an entertaining evening of Pro-Celebrity tennis.
By 4am we were finished, dawn was breaking and we loaded the van with covers and machines ready for me to take them back to their owners later that morning. Most of the lads went home to bed, but I went back to my hotel, showered and checked out, getting back to Tower Bridge at 6:15am. I dozed off briefly, only to be woken by the JCB driver, ready to load our efforts into lorries.
In just twelve hours, there was no evidence that there had ever been a tennis court built at Tower Bridge, good job we had our cameras!
To finish, I would like to thank the marketing company and their client for the opportunity to carry out this special project and especially all of our team for their hard work and diligence throughout the operation. It was a pleasure to work alongside so many dedicated professionals with one aim to succeed.