In the nuanced world of grass-court preparation, consistency is king. Like grass itself, it’s a mantra that Canadian agronomist Barry Britton lives and breathes by.
Achieving consistency of speed and bounce across the three match courts and three practice courts at the TC Weissenhof, home of the MercedesCup ATP World Tour 250 tennis tournament, is no easy feat. Enter Britton, his four-member court crew and a trusty yellow engineering tool, the Clegg hammer, a common engineering tool (often used in road construction and house foundations preparation) to measure the density of soil.
“The key thing is to match all the courts if you can,” Britton says. “We don’t want dead spots; we want uniformity. But we’re working with plants that are growing at different rates, have different root structures, a different bio mass and with different soils. You have to accept that you will get dead spots, but we try to eliminate them as much as possible. That’s the beauty of playing with a living surface.
“I know where the dead spots are. But I can’t let that out as players would play to those spots. But a smart player, the really professional ones, will pick up areas on the court where the ball reacts differently.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re a low-ranked qualifier or Roger Federer. If you’re practising in the 4pm-5pm hour, you better build in an extra few minutes to accommodate Britton and his yellow instrument of choice. On a typical day, Britton heads out to the practice courts at that time of day to begin poking and prodding the playing surface. By then, the courts have already been roughed up by players and endured the toughest heat of the day.
Only the match courts can breathe easy, but their turn will come later in the evening. “I can’t go on the match courts because if I make an indentation and a ball hits it, a player might blame the agronomist. So I wait till after the matches are done,” Britton says.
The data-collection process is relatively quick, taking just a few minutes. Britton tests six areas of the court, far fewer than the 30 each side he may test in the weeks leading up to the event, when the courts are divided into grids. Remedial action to improve consistency during a tournament is limited to rolling, irrigating (watering or applying covers to trap humidity) and fine mowing.
“Earlier this week I went out to Court 4 and Roger was practising,” Britton says. “I asked if I could come on the court and he said, ‘Absolutely’ and showed an interest in what we were doing. I said our goal was to get the courts consistent and uniform. He wished us good luck. And Viktor Troicki was very interested to know what we were doing. Most players are. They want to know what is going on.”
Britton has worked for the tournament since 2015, when it switched from clay to grass. He says that growing conditions this year were extreme. “They were the worst conditions I had seen to grow grass. March and April were so cold and wet that there was a lot of damage on the courts. It was everything we could do just to get grass on centre court.”
Ahead of the tournament, Britton works with the club’s court keeper, promoter and ATP officials to ensure that the courts are ready for prime time when the grass season begins. “We try to build these courts to Wimbledon standards and we use the three identical rye grasses used there. We’re learning that that may not be conducive to the winters we get here, where we get a lot of winter injury and damage. We’re restricted with the integrated pest management products we can use in Stuttgart.”
But come show time, Britton and his team will do everything in their power to deliver the best possible playing surface to kick off the grass season.