With the qualifying rounds done and dusted at the All-England Club, The Championships (aka Wimbledon) is officially in full swing. Centre Court for the premier grass court tennis tournament in the world is pretty much as iconic as it comes. For what it’s worth, the tourney’s favorites come down to Novak Djokovic (who has a pretty favorable draw) and Carlos Alcaraz on the men’s side and Iga Swiatek (since her kryptonite aka Elena Rybakina is on the other side of the draw), Aryna Sabalenka, and Petra Kvitova (my dark horse pick for the tourney) on the ladies’ side.
But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to talk grass. Specifically, the grass that’s been the go-to for the All-England Club’s Courts and Horticulture Department (led by Neil Stubley) since 2001 – perennial ryegrass. Per the Wimbledon website:
Courts are sown with 100 per cent Perennial Ryegrass (since 2001) to improve durability and strengthen the sward to withstand better the increasing wear of the modern game. Independent expert research from The Sports Turf Research Institute in Yorkshire, UK, proved that changing the grass seed mix to 100 per cent perennial ryegrass (previously 70 per cent rye/30 per cent creeping red fescue) would be the best way forward to combat wear and enhance court presentation and performance without affecting the perceived speed of the court.
Perennial ryegrass, scientifically known as Lolium perenne, is a grass species native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. However, it has been introduced to and thrives in many other regions of the world, including North America and Australia, due to its high adaptability.
Perennial ryegrass is a popular choice for lawns, sports fields, pastures, and golf courses because of its ability to withstand heavy foot traffic, its quick establishment rate, and its relatively fine leaf texture which provides a dense, lush surface. It’s also commonly used for overseeding warm-season grasses during the cooler months to maintain green color throughout the year.
Perennial ryegrass is a cool-season grass, meaning it thrives in cool temperatures and usually experiences active growth in the spring and fall. It forms a dense, fine-textured lawn that recovers well from occasional droughts and has a fast germination rate. The leaf blades are glossy on the underside and have a deep green color. Its roots form a dense and fibrous system, which is excellent for soil erosion control.
In terms of maintenance, it requires regular mowing and watering, especially during dry periods. Fertilizer should be applied during its growing seasons of spring and fall. While it is quite resistant to wear and tear, it can struggle in very hot, dry conditions or in very cold winters. In terms of disease resistance, it’s generally resistant to a variety of common turf diseases, but can be susceptible to some types of fungus.
Maintaining a Wimbledon-standard tennis court is a complex, year-long process. Every year, nine tonnes of grass seed is sown across the courts, forming the rich green foundation for the prestigious Championships. During the tournament, meticulous daily care is taken to ensure optimal playing conditions, with each court re-lined, rolled and mown every single day. A daily inspection system is in place to keep a check on the court wear, surface hardness, and ball rebound. Despite the high level of maintenance throughout the year, all courts undergo an extensive renovation process each September to restore them to their pristine condition.
Growing a grass court that matches the standards of the Championships is a laborious, 15-month-long endeavor. The process starts in April when the courts are constructed and seeded. As soon as the fresh grass reaches a height of 15mm, the first cut is made, and this cutting routine is followed three times a week throughout May to maintain this height. However, during the Championships, the grass is kept at a slightly lower height of 8mm, and is cut every day to maintain the tournament standard.
Throughout the rest of the summer, the courts are cut three-times a week and watered to allow them to mature and naturally firm up. At summer’s end, each court is topped with six tonnes of soil to ensure a level playing surface. The grass height is gradually reduced from the winter height of 13mm to the playing height of 8mm starting in March, a process that continues until Members’ Day in May.
Early May also signals the time to mark the white lines on the courts, and throughout the playing season, the grass is cut every other day. The courts are rolled weekly in May using a one-tonne roller to firm up the surface and ensure readiness for play. In June, the amount of water administered to the courts is gradually restricted, helping to further solidify the surface. During the Championships, the courts are cut, lines are marked, and a small amount of water is applied at night, every day, to help the grass survive the rigorous play and maintain its lush, green look.
There are many different cultivars of perennial ryegrass, each with slightly different characteristics. Some have been bred for disease resistance, others for drought tolerance, and some for a specific color or growth habit.
The selective breeding and cultivation of perennial ryegrass for specific traits began largely in the 20th century. Scientists and breeders began to recognize the grass’s value beyond just forage, especially its utility in various turf situations such as lawns, sports fields, and golf courses. With its quick germination, resistance to wear and tear, and relatively fine texture, perennial ryegrass proved a useful species for these applications.
Several breeding programs around the world have focused on improving the characteristics of perennial ryegrass to make it more suited for various purposes. These programs have used traditional plant breeding techniques to create new cultivars with enhanced traits, such as improved disease resistance, heat and drought tolerance, winter hardiness, and better aesthetic qualities like color and leaf texture.
The introduction of perennial ryegrass into areas outside its natural range, such as North America and Australia, furthered its evolution. New challenges in these environments, like different pests, diseases, and climatic conditions, led to further selective breeding for resistance and adaptability.
In more recent years, advances in genetic techniques have allowed for more targeted manipulation of perennial ryegrass’s traits. Genomic selection, marker-assisted selection, and even genetic modification technologies have been explored to further enhance perennial ryegrass’s performance in various settings.
The evolution of perennial ryegrass, like many cultivated plants, is an ongoing process. As new challenges and needs arise, further breeding and genetic manipulation of this versatile grass species will likely continue.
WORDS: Marc Landas.
IMAGE CREDIT: David Hillas, Gabinho, GATORFAN2525.