The staggering science and art behind Wimbledon's legendary grass courts

“Next year’s championship starts the day after the last one finishes.”

July 2, 2024, 5:00 AM

LONDON -- Billie Jean King -- tennis legend, trailblazer and 12-time grand slam winner -- once famously said that “tennis is the perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of tranquility.”

If taken to be true, then Neil Stubley, head of courts and horticulture at Wimbledon, is responsible for the battlefield that some of the most epic matches in tennis lore have ever been played on.

From the longest tennis match in history between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at the 2010 Wimbledon Championships lasting 11 hours and 5 minutes over three days to Carlos Alcaraz’ electrifying victory over Novak Djokovic in 2023, Stubley oversees the meticulous process that ensures these courts meet the highest standards for playability and aesthetics, each 8-millimeter blade of grass at a time.

Aryna Sabalenka serves during a practice session ahead of The Championships - Wimbledon 2023 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 2, 2023 in London.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images, FILE

“Next year’s championship starts the day after the last one finishes,” Stubley told ABC News. “And that's just what we do.”

As the chief architect of Wimbledon’s playing surfaces, Stubley is responsible for the maintenance and management of the grass, acrylic, and clay courts at the All England Club, while also overseeing the club's landscaping, ensuring that every blade of grass is in perfect condition for both the tournament and the club's private members.

This involves an astounding amount of science, metrics and data -- a craft honed over and generations at The All England Club -- and for Stubley and his team, the learning, development and fine-tuning never stops.

“We’ll number crunch not just year-round but all the way through the championships,” Stubley said. “We'll look at how the baselines are wearing and how hard the courts have been by doing daily checks where each of our 38 courts will be measured 24 times each day meaning nearly 20,000 readings across The Championships. This is all about the science.”

A shadow of a player is seen as the sunsets during day five of The Championships Wimbledon 2023 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 7, 2023 in London.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images, FILE

The rigorous data collection may seem like a lot but it allows Stubley and his 15 permanent ground staff -- which expands to a team of 28 during the two-week tournament -- to make any necessary adjustments to create optimal playing conditions, conditions that can ultimately affect the outcomes of matches and tennis history.

“I would say getting the grass surfaces right at Wimbledon is like when a chef creates a new dish,” said Stubley. “You can have a dish that's got the perfect ingredients, but if you don't present it right, does it really matter? Or you can have ingredients that are not very good and you can present them well and make it look nice. What we try to do is marry the two. We use the best ingredients to produce the most beautiful aesthetic surface that we can.”

The grass courts at Wimbledon have undergone significant changes over the years. Historically, the courts have featured a mix of bents and fescue grasses -- which grew both horizontally and vertically -- creating a dense, fibrous surface that was often favored by serve-and-volley players due to its energy-absorbing characteristics.

However, by the late 1990s, it became clear that these grasses were not resilient enough to withstand the two-week tournament and, following extensive research and collaboration with turf specialists, Wimbledon transitioned to 100% perennial ryegrass.

A detail shot of grass on Centre Court during day thirteen of The Championships Wimbledon 2023 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 15, 2023 in London.
Julian Finney/Getty Images, FILE

This means that the grass courts in 2024 are more drought-tolerant, wear-resistant and grows vertically, resulting in a thinner, more consistent playing surface which Stubley says has improved the courts' durability and performance and allows for a more predictable ball bounce that enhances the overall quality of play.

“We are always looking to improve that extra 1% each year,” Stubley told ABC News. “We always want to improve because the players are always improving. They're getting stronger and faster. If you think of players in the Rod Laver days who were 5’5” weighing 9 stone (126 pounds) compared to some of the players now who are 6’6” and 16 stone (224 pounds) of pure muscle who can sprint across 20 meters between 2 to 3 seconds, there is a lot more pressure on the playing surface and the need for the grass to survive that.”

In fact, during the six weeks leading up to The Championships, members of the All England Club will play on the courts to simulate tournament conditions, allowing Stubley and his team to make final adjustments based on real-world feedback and ensuring that the courts are in peak condition when the world's best players arrive.

While the primary focus is on performance for Stubley and his team, aesthetics also plays a crucial role with the green, lush appearance of the grass an iconic feature of Wimbledon.

PHOTO: Tennis rackets of Neal Skupski of the U.K. and Wesley Koolhof lay on the grass at The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club at Wimbledon on July 15th, 2023 in London.
Tennis rackets of Neal Skupski of the U.K. and Wesley Koolhof of the Netherlands lay on the grass after winning the Mens Doubles final against Marcel Granollers of Spain and Horacio Zeballos of Argentina at The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club at Wimbledon on July 15th, 2023 in London.
Simon M Bruty/Getty Images

For Stubley, achieving the right balance between aesthetics and functionality is the goal, without having to compromise too much on either side and taking player safety into account.

“The baselines on a grass court deteriorate throughout the course of the tournament,” said Stubley. “You can't have a tennis court at the end of Wimbledon look like it did on day one. That's utopia. Though we still always try and achieve that when we're looking up changing our grass cultivars, how much water applying, the nutritional programs. In theory, that is not achievable, but it doesn't stop you wanting it.”

Stubley, who initially trained as a chef at the start of his career, transitioned to horticulture after realizing his passions were elsewhere, ironic considering he now considers himself a kind of chef and creator in many ways. But a fortuitous opportunity almost 30 years ago gave him the chance to work as a summer intern at Wimbledon before he cannily turned that into a permanent position, rising through the ranks to become head of the department and, arguably, one of the most experienced people in his field.

Hawk-Eye markers on Court 18 at Wimbledon on June 24, 2024.
Chloe Knott/AELTC

“One of the things I always say to people is as long as we've done the best we possibly can, if we've not cut any corners and we've done our due diligence, if -- for whatever reason -- a player complains or something goes wrong, you can take the slack,” said Stubley. “It’s a rollercoaster as soon as the tournament starts, and you are just on it for the ride no matter what. So, whenever I wake up in the in the lead up to Wimbledon and I can’t get back to sleep because I'm just thinking about what if what if this happens or if that happens, I’ll remind myself as long as we do the best that we possibly can, then that's all that can be asked of us.”

Ultimately, it takes continuous innovation and meticulous attention to detail for Stubley and his team to preserve the legacy of Wimbledon as the pinnacle of grass-court tennis, a complex, year-round task that combines scientific rigor with horticultural expertise.

“I am very fortunate that I'm in the position I am, and I'm very appreciative of it,” said Stubley. “But I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for all of the hard work from the team that goes into it.”

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