Great Britain’s First Olympic Gold Medal Goes to … Grass

Olympic organizers, and the tennis world, wondered whether Wimbledon could be ready for the Olympics. Game, set, match: the grass is looking good.

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A general view of Court number one during previews ahead of the 2012 London Olympic Games at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbeldon on July 23, 2012 in London, England.

Claim an Olympic victory, Great Britain. The grass grew. Wimbledon recovered. Tennis was played. The Games will go on.

For years now, Olympic organizers, British fans, and the country’s ruthless media critics have been fretting about fate of Wimbledon’s grass tennis courts.The All-England Club faced one of the toughest groundskeeping tests in its 144-year history: how would the Club host a Wimbledon championship tournament on July 8, and have its pristine grass courts prepped in time for the Olympic tournament just three weeks later? The grass stressed out the players too. “That was the question we were all wondering,” said Kim Cljisters, the former world no. 1 and three-time U.S. Open champ, after winning her first Olympic match on Saturday. “How were they going to do it?”

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Usually, after the All-England Club chairman knocks around some balls with guests on Centre Court on the Wednesday following Sunday men’s final, the crew shaves the grass off the courts and completely re-seeds it. “We start from scratch,” says Neil Stubley, head groundsman designate for the All-England Club (he takes over officially at the end of the summer). Each new blade receives loving care over the next 12 months. Now, Wimbledon had 20 days.

If watching grass grow can ever be described as exciting—relatively, at least—this was it. The club planted pre-germinated seeds, which had already been placed in warm-water bins, in the court areas worn out from Wimbledon. During the week following Wimbledon, groundsmen covered the court in a seed blanket—basically, a tarp that functions like a greenhouse. For Stubley, this part of the process caused some anxiety. What’s going on under the blankets? “You’re not quite sure what’s happening,” says Stubley. “You wake up every morning and say, ‘I need to get to work, I need to look under the cover, to see where it should be that day. When you take off that cover, and see that sheen of green again, you wipe your brow and go, ‘whew.'”

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The club has been prepping for this agrostological miracle since 2010. “The process we came up with, as to how to regerminate the seed, what type of fertilizer to use, and how much, we’ve actually been doing trials for two years,” says Stubley. “We monitored them, photographed them, went through the whole thing.”

How’d the grounds crew do? ‘I’ve got to say, it breaks down a little bit faster than at Wimbledon,” says Cljisters. “You saw the big chunks flying off.” As for the grass aesthetics, Catherine Dibble, a sports psychology student who also attended this year’s Wimbledon, says the grass looked “maybe a little bit worse” than at the championship tournament, especially along the baseline.

But these are minor quibbles. “It’s in excellent condition,” says Vincent Wathan, a retired police officer from South Wales, who has attended five prior tournaments. “They did a grand job.” The players are giving high marks. “It’s amazing how they made it change so well,” says Cljisters. “You really couldn’t tell a difference.” Even losing players weren’t griping — and griping, like Wimbledon itself, is a tennis tradition. “They did an impressive job with it,” says Anastasia Rodionova, an Australian doubles player, after her team lost its opening round Olympic match. “No one expected it to turn out so well.”

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So seriously, give the grass a medal. After all, Stubley compares his lawn to a jock. “It’s like a fine athlete,” says Stubley, while sitting along Centre Court about 90 minutes before its first Olympic match. A dapper fellow, Stubley looks out at his flush, finely-tuned work like a proud coach—or parent. “When I look at grass, I think, What does it need? What’s the amount of water to keep it hydrated at all times? What’s the amount of food that goes in? What’s the quality?” He also thinks of his crew as chefs and artists who mix ingredients and serve their craft to the world. “You can have the perfect tennis courts, but it you don’t present them well, some people are going to say, they feel nice, but they don’t look that great,” says Stubley. “Wheras here, we expect them to look great. The makeup of the court has to be 100 percent.” Stubley admits he loves the green stuff.

The biggest botanical challenge facing Stubley: today’s bigger, faster players—like 6-ft., 9-in. American John Isne—eat it up. (Novak Djokovic, literally so: he chomped on some grass after winning his first Wimbledon title last year.) “Grass is becoming a lot more drought tolerant, a lot more wear tolerant,” says Stubley. “But every time we master something, something then comes along to counteract that. That’s the challenge, that’s the excitement.” Pumped about grass yet?  “We might get grass that doesn’t wear out,” says Stubely, “then we might have nine-foot players. Who knows? It’s a scary thought.”

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