Tennis and turf: the story

Canada’s Grant Cantin reflects on his career as head groundsman at England’s Wimbledon courts
Mike Jiggens
May 07, 2019
By
Wimbledon courts head groundsman Grant Cantin speaks about his career during a presentation before the Western Canada Turfgrass Association in Richmond, B.C.
Wimbledon courts head groundsman Grant Cantin speaks about his career during a presentation before the Western Canada Turfgrass Association in Richmond, B.C.
May 14, 2019 – What began as a post-graduation adventure on the other side of the world with a few friends has evolved into a life changing career experience for an Edmonton-area man. Upon the completion of his studies in turfgrass management at Olds College in 2000, Grant Cantin and a group of friends embarked on a trip to Australia, with enough money to enjoy themselves in the land down under for nine or 10 months.

But after only a couple of months of living it up, Cantin realized he was near broke.

“It was either come back to Edmonton and find a job or go back to Sydney and look for a job on a golf course,” he said, speaking in February at the Western Canada Turfgrass Association’s annual conference in Richmond, B.C.

He and his friends opted to remain in Australia, hoping to find enough work to stay financially afloat. Fortune was on their side, and a cold call to Sydney’s Lakes Golf Club opened the door for work in preparation for a PGA Tour event in the coming weeks. They were interviewed and began on the job the following Monday.

It was while working at the Lakes Club that Cantin met some British individuals who gushed about their work experience at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club – the home of the annual Wimbledon Championships. Tennis wasn’t his “thing,” but Cantin was intrigued enough to debate whether to travel to London, England and seek work at the club or make the shorter journey to New Zealand and work in Wellington for a coming PGA event.

“Everyone knows what Wimbledon is,” he said, noting it was a toss-up as to which choice to make. “It would sure look good on the resume.”

The plan was to stay in England one summer, perhaps see a little bit of Europe and then return to Canada. Seventeen years later, Cantin is still living and working at the tennis club and has ascended the ladder to become its head groundsman.

Cantin shared his experiences of maintaining the famed grass courts during his presentation at the WCTA conference, but hinted he is considering a return to Alberta in the not-too-distant future to pursue a career in the golf field.

In his capacity as head of the grounds crew at the tennis club, he is responsible for the upkeep of 38 grass courts, some of which are a century old while others are only five years old. Some are housed in stadiums while others are in the open. Some have shade issues and some don’t.

“The trickiest part of our job is to make sure all those courts play the same. Everybody tends to forget it is a living, breathing surface that does change daily.”

Cantin said if a professional tennis player is practising on one court, its playing conditions must be the same as the facility’s Centre Court – the club’s premier court used for Wimbledon’s championship finals. The surface cannot be firmer on any one court that may cause the ball to bounce higher.

To ensure consistency from one court to the next, an independent company is retained to test ball bounce, moisture levels and surface firmness.

His first cut
Cantin endured a trial by fire early in his career at the tennis club. In 2003, the mower operator usually assigned to cut Centre Court for the Wimbledon championships came down with a serious hand infection and wasn’t able to mow. Even though it was only Cantin’s second season, he was asked if he could cut the premier court. To ensure he was able to cut lines as straight as possible, he opted not to go out the night before or engage in any activity that might compromise the assigned task.

Later that afternoon, after Centre Court had successfully been cut by Cantin to championship expectations, a “skinny, long-haired kid” named Roger Federer captured his inaugural Wimbledon title and completed his first ever Grand Slam.

The club, which also served as the site for the tennis events at the 2012 Olympics, is the venue for 17 different events at the Wimbledon championships each July, including men’s and women’s singles and doubles, mixed doubles, junior events, invitational events involving top players from yesteryear and wheelchair competitions.

Looking after 38 grass courts and a number of clay and acrylic courts at the club takes a team of several individuals. Sixteen full-time staff, two mechanics and two irrigation engineers support Cantin’s drive for perfection. Another dozen summer staff work April to October and tend to be international in scope. Several Australians, New Zealanders and Americans make up the international staff with the occasional Canadian lending a hand.

An additional championship staff of three joins the team for the two-week Wimbledon championships, taking time off from their regular jobs to help with court maintenance.

Until only recently, the club consisted of 41 grass courts, but shut down three courts to allow for construction of a retractable roof for the No. 1 court. A third grass court was lost to make room for additional eating areas for the public. Clay courts are used primary in the spring and fall when the grass courts are no longer in play.

The five indoor courts will be knocked down at the end of the 2019 championships to make room for a new state-of-the-art building, a below ground parking garage for 400 vehicles, and six new clay courts surrounding the new building’s exterior. Two additional acrylic courts  – similar to those used at the U.S. Open – have been added to allow tennis players to acclimate themselves toward the next major championship.

Wimbledon is a 13-day event at which spectators are afforded a picnic feel to their experience of attending the championships. They are permitted to bring with them their own food hamper and beer or wine.

“It’s nice that we can still do this,” Cantin said, adding that other major sporting events forbid the practice and instead gouge spectators at concession stands.

The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club has been at its current location since 1922, even though the Wimbledon championships were founded in 1868. In 1922, tennis was becoming increasingly more popular and the original grounds were deemed too small.

Without the retractable roof, the No. 1 Court often found itself covered by a tarp during rain events. Cantin said his staff could have the court covered in less than 20 seconds. Erected like a tent, the cover could be put in place in quick order.

“It’s such a quick process that the umpire stays seated in the umpire’s chair, and we just roll him off.”

The lawn courts’ turf is mowed at a height of eight millimetres for the championship and 13 millimetres during the off-season. The courts are grown to 100 per cent perennial ryegrass that is preferred for its drought, stress and wear tolerance and its ability to recover quickly, Cantin said. The courts are cut using electric-powered Cub Cadet InfiniCut mowers.



The history of rolling
During his presentation, Cantin showed historic photographs that depicted the changing ways in which the courts have been rolled over the years. The oldest image showed a horse-pulled roller with the horse wearing specially made leather shoes to minimize turf damage. Man-powered rolling was later adopted to reduce surface damage, and that eventually gave way to engine-powered equipment. Today, hydrostatic rollers are used with only minimal rolling required.

The grass courts are made up of 23 per cent clay content, he said, that, when allowed to dry out, are almost as hard as concrete by the time the two-week Wimbledon tournament begins.

“That’s how you get the big ball bounce.”

In late May or early June, poa annua wants to “rear its ugly head” and produce seed heads. Cantin said the club has tried virtually everything possible to prevent that from happening, but said he has found steam sterilization has proven effective since integrating the technique in recent years. He said the process kills everything in the top 10 inches, producing a brand new soil and added it has resulted in a significant reduction in poa annua seed heads.

He said that during his 17 years at the club, a series of major projects have traditionally followed each championship. Perhaps the most significant one was a new retractable roof built for Centre Court, beginning in 2006. The project was completed in 2009 and allows play to continue in the event of rain. Made of a translucent fabric to allow natural light to filter in for photosynthetic purposes, it can open or close in less than 10 minutes. The roof ensures that television coverage of the finals can continue uninterrupted if weather is a factor. Prior to Centre Court having a roof, television broadcasting of the Wimbledon championships resorted to previous years’ highlights during rain delays.

 During the roof project, it was decided to upgrade the ducting systems between courts and improve the cabling.

“That meant every time we needed to cut the grass, we needed to get a crane to lift the mower (prior to adopting the walk-behind InfiniCut mowers) onto the court.”

A handful of years later, the club also wanted to build a couple of new restaurants on the premises – one for the ball kids and another for the officials – but were unsure where they should be located. Cantin said they couldn’t be built upwards or outwards, and a decision was made to build them downwards. Consequently, two grass courts were dug up to accommodate “a basement hole” and a foundation was constructed. New grass courts were constructed atop.

“The tricky part about building a grass court is you can’t just build it and play on it immediately. Ideally, you need to leave it for at least 18 months.”

Cantin said the new courts were “nice and green” upon completion, but they weren’t used for the 2014 championships. In order for the soil to settle correctly before it can handle play, 18 to 24 months are needed, he said, but added five years is really the mature time for a soil structure on a tennis court.

In 2015, it was suggested to the referees’ office that because the new courts were only two years old they should not be bogged down with 80 hours of play such as that which is played on Centre Court. Cantin recommended play to be kept to 35 to 40 hours.

“Losing two courts for a championship doesn’t sound like much, but it really impacts the whole play because all of those hours of play you have to make up elsewhere.”

The largest project currently on the go is the installation of a retractable roof for the No. 1 Court. Based on the success of the Centre Court roof project, which has prevented countless rain delays over the past 10 years, the No. 1 Court roof is expected to make a significant difference in allowing the singles draws to be played without interruption. Spectators will also be able to watch play in greater comfort.

The project was a 2½-year build, but was put on hold each year to accommodate the Wimbledon championships. Each April during the build, cranes were removed from the site and the area was completely cleaned up in May in time for the championships. Three weeks after play finished, the cranes were moved back in for the resumption of construction.

This May, a test event has been scheduled to ensure the roof works properly. An event involving some of the sport’s greatest legends, including John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova, will be played to allow the roof to open and close during tennis play to ensure everything is in working order in time for Wimbledon this summer.

Cantin reflected upon the 2012 Olympics that were held in London, admitting news that the tennis events would be played at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club came with mixed feelings. On the one hand, being part of the Olympic experience was exciting, he said, but he and his staff had only 20 days to get the courts back to pristine levels upon completion of that year’s Wimbledon championships. Baselines and other areas of the courts were well worn at the time work began to restore them in time for the Olympics.

“Wimbledon is hallowed turf. Nobody goes out there unless you’re playing on it or you’re working on it.”

Cantin said the club isn’t available for charity events, even if “deep pockets” are involved.

“It’s used for two weeks of the year and that’s it.”

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