Off-Court Advantage

An old-fashioned dress code, 28 tons of strawberries, and a hawk named Rufus—just a few integral parts of the greatest tennis tournament on earth

For tennis fans, there is no more prized patch of green on earth than Centre Court at Wimbledon. What those fans may not know is that the smallest splash of fox urine could desecrate the closest thing that tennis has to holy ground.

For Neil Stubley, head groundsman at the All England Club, it’s a deadly liquid. The chemicals in the urine can burn through the lawn and leave holes the size of dinner plates. “From about two weeks before the tournament until it’s over, I don’t sleep very well,” Stubley said as we sat inside Centre Court, a couple of rows back from the greensward. There are nights when Stubley wakes at 2 a.m., fretting about the possibility of a fox invasion. This isn’t irrational. On one side of the All England Club is Wimbledon Common, and on the other is a golf course. When darkness falls, the foxes slip into the grounds, ghosting through the open gangways of Centre Court. The threat is constant.

Stubley’s broken nights demonstrate the thought, care, and, well, angst, that go into upholding the traditions of a tournament that styles itself as tennis played at an English garden party. But there are other strong examples (more on the grass shortly). Consider the strict adherence to age-old uniform regulations, or the reverence accorded to the tournament’s dessert of choice: strawberries and cream.

                            Each year, spectators consume more than 28 tons of strawberries and cream, the tournament’s iconic dessert
Each year, spectators consume more than 28 tons of strawberries and cream, the tournament’s iconic dessert

Before daybreak, at 4 a.m., the fruit is freshly picked and transported from a farm in Kent, south of London, to the All England Club before the gates open. “In the middle of the summer, it’s not actually that dark at 4, and that means you can start picking at that time,” said Anthony Davies, head of catering at the All England Club. Such an early start is required if the pickers are to gather enough fruit. Over the course of two weeks, the public will eat around 28 tons of strawberries (topped with about 10,000 liters of pouring cream).

Each morning, up to two tons of fruit are delivered by truck, about 80,000 berries a day. Every one of those berries must meet the required standard. “We’ve been using the same farm in Kent since 1990, so they are attuned to the quality we are looking for,” said Davies. To ensure Wimbledon stays true to its Victorian beginnings—when eating strawberries was the height of fashion—the tournament now gives its kitchen staff teaspoons for the important task of de-hulling, which is the removal of the green stalks. It would be far quicker and easier to slice off the top of the fruit with a knife, but scooping with a teaspoon keeps the shape of the berry intact.

All those man-hours seem worth it when guests finally get a helping for themselves. “A bowl of strawberries and cream is a central part of the Wimbledon experience,” said Davies. Each portion, costing 2.50 pounds, will contain at least 10 berries, served with as much cream and sugar as desired.

                            Novak Djokovic conforms to uniform regulations at last year’s tournament
Novak Djokovic conforms to uniform regulations at last year’s tournament

The players’ uniforms are famously held to equally exacting standards. The club requests that clothing manufacturers send in the players’ outfits at least 90 days in advance to confirm that they adhere to the strict almost-all-white rules. No other tournament cares so much about the players’ appearance (or, some might argue, simply keeping up appearances).

The letter that the All England Club sent to manufacturers ahead of this summer’s tournament suggests that submitting their clothes in good time will avoid “potential embarrassment”: “We do strongly encourage all manufacturers to submit to us the clothing and equipment they are supplying to their players for approval,” the letter states. “The Championships is known for seeking to retain some of the traditions and the heritage of the sport, and we appreciate the considerable cooperation and support that we receive from you to achieve this objective.”

Still, for all the attention on the strawberries and the clothes, Wimbledon would be nothing without the grass. “However well every other part of the Championships is run, everyone wants to know about the grass and how it’s performing,” Stubley said. And the tournament begins and ends with Centre Court.

Fox urine isn’t the only thought that troubles Stubley’s sleep; other threats to his lawn include the local pigeons, whose droppings could damage the grass (the club keeps an in-house hawk, named Rufus, to scare the birds away, but there are no guarantees); humans playing a prank or making a political statement; and the high “stress levels” experienced by the turf.

                            Rufus the pigeon-hunting hawk keeps a keen eye on Centre Court
Rufus the pigeon-hunting hawk keeps a keen eye on Centre Court

For the best part of a month—for nine days of practice before the tournament and then for two weeks of matches—all the courts are dried out and held at “wilting point, which is the point at which they could live or die,” explained Stubley. “One of the things you learn when studying turf management in college is that you never compact the soil, and the other is that the plant should always be really hydrated. In tennis, we roll the turf until it goes rock hard, and then we deny it water, so we do the two things that you shouldn’t do if you want to keep a grass plant healthy.”

Every morning of the Championships at 7:30 a.m., the courts will be cut to their playing height of eight millimeters. Some days, the mowers are only removing half a millimeter, and the players wouldn’t even notice the difference, but Stubley and his staff would. And every day throughout the tournament, Stubley’s groundsmen collect data on the turf. “The one thing I would like to get across is that every one of our courts is a living plant, and it dies,” said Stubley. “At the other grand slams, it’s an inert surface, and the court plays the same way on the first day as it does on the last day. At Wimbledon, the courts change every day.”

If you were to wander into Centre Court a few hours before play starts, you’d see a team of grown men and women staring at the ground, tallying up the number of blades on the court. It has to be one of the oddest jobs in the sports industry, but it’s for a good cause. They need to understand how the grass is bearing up.

Fingers crossed they don’t find any fox-related damage.
Mark Hodgkinson is the author of Fedegraphica, a graphic biography of Roger Federer (Aurum, June 2016).
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