British Gardener on Wimbledon Court Duty

Virtually out of sight here at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, a split-level terrace holding 16 practice courts forms a vast field of dreams for the world's top tennis players.

The players use these courts to toil for hours, perfecting strokes and building stamina. On match days, they use them to prepare for tournament struggles only a few minutes or hours away.

The hopes of Wimbledon's competitors for a good workout rest heavily on the shoulders of a tanned Yorkshire-born gardener named Bryan McDonald.

McDonald, 63, is in charge of keeping the practice courts in top condition. His challenge is to groom them so they offer the same bounce and footing as Wimbledon's 19 competition courts.

McDonald offers this humble description of himself: "I'm just a common old garden grounds man."

Wimbledon officials say the practice courts have become a new priority for the club.

"It's ever more important to the players," says Chris Gorringe, the club's chief executive. "And if it's important to the players, it's important to the club."

What could be important about courts that rarely receive a spectator? Where players toil for hours on a single forehand or overhead?

Gorringe, who played at Wimbledon as a junior competitor, explains that the professional tennis world is changing rapidly.

In decades past, top players held practice sessions with each other. Now, he says, many top competitors arrive with an entourage of coach, trainer and hitting partner. They often request their own practice courts. Hence the need for more of Wimbledon's ryegrass surfaces.

For Practice, But Must Be Perfect

McDonald's domain forms a kind of duplicate Wimbledon, an expanse almost as great as the playing surface on which the club stages its competition matches.

Each night, McDonald and a small team re-line, roll, and mow the courts, clipping them to a height of 8 millimeters (.31496 of an inch).

Over the course of the tournament, Wimbledon's 28 groundskeepers re-line, roll, and mow all 35 competition and practice courts every night.

For players like Lindsay Lee-Waters, 26, of Atlanta, Ga., ranked 90th in world, practice conditions are a vital way to simulate tournament conditions.

"It's very important for me. I didn't play in any warm-up [grass] tournaments … The conditions [on Wimbledon's practice courts] were great," she said.

But they weren't enough. Lee-Waters lost in three sets in the first round to Jane O'Donohue of Great Britain, where, need it be said, there are thousands of grass courts.

Brown Stain on a Green Court

At Wimbledon, grass is the focus 52 weeks a year. The club's groundskeepers sow a ton of ryegrass seed every year.

A week ago, two men in shirtsleeves looked down on a small puddle-sized patch of brown in an ocean of green. They stood at the rear of practice court 3.

"Why does it appear on some and not on others?" asked Gorringe, in white shirt and striped tie.

"I don't know," answered McDonald, in blue shirt and blue corduroy work pants.

"It's a fungus," McDonald said later. "We should be able to get it up overnight."

To drive it away, he sprayed the patch with a fungicide. It didn't work.

The puddle of brown was still there two days later. But it was small and far enough to one side that the players didn't seem to mind.

In truth, the brown puddle was virtually the only blemish visible on the acres of practice surfaces.

Club's Longest-Serving Employee

McDonald, who joined the staff as a 17-year-old temporary worker in 1958, retires in two years under a mandatory club rule. He has served longer at Wimbledon than any other employee.

His son Lee, 35, is a groundskeeper at a tennis club in Surbiton, about seven miles from Wimbledon. Another son, Stuart, 34, is a postal worker studying to be a plumber. A cousin, Barry, works with him as a Wimbledon staff groundskeeper.

His favorite players? "I liked Rod Laver, he was a gentleman," he said. "He was just a nice fellow. He had a friendly smile and a wave for everybody. He was always pleasant. Some of them can be quite nasty."

John McEnroe, whose on-court antics often classified him as other than a gentleman, also won McDonald's favor. Once the brash young New Yorker dashed onto a patch of McDonald's test grass, a hybrid experiment to strengthen the footing at the ends of the courts.

"I explained to him that 'This is next year's baselines,' " McDonald said. McEnroe politely said that in that case he wouldn't walk on it. McDonald's verdict: "He's nice as pie."

McDonald toils at a club where members wear coat and tie to drink or eat in what is called the "members' enclosure."

Yet McDonald and Gorringe, worker and executive, seem to share an unusually relaxed relationship.

After Gorringe had moved away to check preparations for the tournament, McDonald observed: "It's not every day that a guvnor comes down to talk to the staff," he said, describing working conditions in many places in Britain, where social class remains an important factor.

McDonald's assessment of his boss: "He's a regular guy."

In truth, Wimbledon has two regular guys at the center of an extraordinary event conducted with the utmost decorum — with attention to every blade of grass.