Grass is still green for Wimbledon’s head groundsman amid tournament cancellation

Neil Stubley should have been decked out in his white shirt and tie this week, monitoring the pristine 38 grass courts across the 42-acre site at Wimbledon.

However, the championships, which were due to start on Monday at the All-England Club, were cancelled for the first time since the Second World War due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The head groundsman, who has been working in the leafy London suburb since 1995, has seen “blood, sweat and tears” spent in preparing the prestigious grand slam come to nothing.

Life goes on though and with members using a reduced capacity of courts that are open, Stubley said it was surreal to walk around and see his courts not humming with the same action.

“It’s the fact that a lot of blood, sweat and tears has gone in to produce the grass courts and we don’t get to showcase them,” he said.

“But that disappointment is across the club. We are all very proud of the work we do and how well-received it is across the world.”

“It is an odd time and the best way to really describe it is you get a strange quiet feeling. It feels a little post-Championship now and there isn’t a great deal happening.”

“I would equate it to having been to a concert. You get that ringing in your ears for a couple of days.”

The 51-year-old said he and his 17 staff plus three temporary workers, reduced from the usual nine, were getting on with the job despite the cancellation.

It is a year-round job nevertheless. Renovation begins in August and September when courts will start to be taken out of play, renovated and then put to bed.

From the start of April, the grass is then taken down a millimetre per week from its winter height of 13mm to its playing height of 8mm, ready for when the courts open to members in mid-May.

And while the championships may only last two weeks, the courts need to be back open for members just two days after the tournament is finished. Work is constant but Stubley loves it.

“Our primary aim is always to be ready for mid-May which is the opening of the grass courts to our members. That is always our first target. It still leaves us with six weeks until championship,” he said.

“We can watch our members play, watch any ball speed, ball bounce. If there is any fine-tuning between May and the championship, then that gives us enough time.

“Even if we had no play on the green, it wouldn’t have any bearing on what we have done. It all gets the same renovation.

“I always try and get across to people you are not repairing the courts, you are preparing for next season.

“Come August, early September it will be the same process – rip the courts up, re-seed them, grow through autumn and winter and the same prep work for the 2021 championships.”

Stubley and his team look after 18 Championships courts, 20 practice courts, and all the flowers, trees and plants at the All-England Club.

He defended the decision in April to cancel the championships even though other sports have returned to action around the world. He insists it was about much more than the playing surface.

“The grass courts were fine when it was cancelled. It is the infrastructure that takes time. It is not a case of saying two weeks out we can play them,” he said.

“There is an eight to 10-week spell to get it ready. Come early April in the midst of the pandemic it was untenable.

“Even now with the restrictions in place, it would be impossible to hold them.”

He has seen many memorable days down through the years, most notably when Andy Murray won his first Wimbledon singles title in 2013 – becoming the first Brit male to triumph since Fred Perry in 1936.

“To be on centre court for that winning moment is one when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” he said.

“Ironically I was looking at Murray’s feet. I am always seeing how the courts are performing, so it was not until I looked up and saw he had dropped his racquet I realised he had won match point and the title.

“Although I was in the stadium I didn’t see the winning shot.”

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