It was 10 a.m. on a bright sunny day in June, and the members at Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, just west of Boston, all dressed in white, slowly began to fill up the grass tennis courts. The early-morning dew had dried up, the sweet-smelling grass was mowed and rolled, the lines were all marked and the nets set up at the correct height. Watching the morning unfold was Michael Buras – and for him it was just another day at the office.
For the past 17 years, Buras, 53, the head groundskeeper of the oldest tennis club in the United States, has been overseeing and maintaining 25 natural grass and 19 Har-Tru clay courts that spread out over 10 acres of land. A Newton resident and University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate in plant and soil science, Buras combines his two passions at work: plants and sports. And every morning, when he comes in through the club’s back entrance on Dunster Road and briskly walks up the red-bricked pathway, he knows exactly how he wants the grass to be: dry and 8 millimeters long.
“The courts can’t be wet at all, the leaves can’t be damp, but we also want healthy grass,” Buras explained sitting at the clubhouse porch last summer. So, every morning before starting the day’s work, Buras and his four assistant grounds superintendents convene and decide, depending on the conditions and weather, if the grass needs to be watered or not in order to strike that balance between grass health and court safety.
In the club’s 137-year history, the soft-spoken Buras is only the fifth man in charge of the whole facility. With cricket being the club’s main priority in the early days – hence the name– the club wanted a cricket coach who could also look after the grass. So, in 1884, they went to Nottingham, England, and hired professional bowler John Isaac Chambers, Longwood’s first head groundskeeper. A $1,000 bonus – considered a lot at the time and worth almost $25,000 today – was more than enough to get Chambers to pick up and move to Boston. After his retirement, his two sons, Charles and Walter, kept the club’s groundskeeping tradition in the family. Buras’s former boss, Michael Humphrey, then took the reins for 30 years before Buras took charge in 1997.
On a normal summer morning, Buras and his staff of 11 get to work at 7, so the courts are ready for play by 10 o’clock, when the members start filing in. After brushing and hand-watering the green clay courts, they prepare themselves for the more labor-intensive and high-maintenance grass surface. Since moisture management is a major concern for Buras and his team, the courts get mowed every day at Longwood, which takes the morning dew off the grass.
As the mowing begins, a loud humming noise echoes around the grounds. With advances in technology, the LCC staff has moved on from the antiquated manual push mowers to using triplex reel mowers, which are powered by hydraulics. With three cutting units, nine spinning blades, a bed knife underneath, and the mowing height set to 1/1000th of an inch, the mower cuts the grass in a scissor-like motion. The height of the grass is the same each time – 5/16 of an inch (or, 8 millimeters).
For Buras, it all comes down to dedication.
“People always have all these wonderful ideas, ‘Oh, I’m going to put a grass court in my yard or build a couple’,” he said. “But building it is fairly simple. It’s the maintenance afterwards that’s, well, you’d have to be dedicated to it, every single day.”
A perfectionist, Buras exudes passion for his field. His eyes light up when he talks about his work. As the leader, he expects a lot from his crew, but that doesn’t make him any less popular. He is aided in his pursuit of perfection by his assistant superintendents, including Nathan Salmore and Andrew Walsh.
As Salmore, 33, went around in circles mowing the seven courts in the “porch row” in front of the clubhouse, his colleague and friend Walsh, 30, was busy trimming the grass on courts 22, 23 and 24 on what the members call ‘the terrace’, near the back entrance. For Salmore and Walsh, this wasn’t the first time they had taken care of a sports turf together. The two first met at Fenway Park in 2004, where they interned for the summer, before completing their bachelors degrees from the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass-Amherst.
With the Red Sox winning the World Series that same year, Walsh joked that it was due to
them. “Yeah, we were definitely responsible. I still take that credit,” he said, laughing.
The male-dominated grounds staff at Longwood welcomed a new female member to their
team earlier this year. Lisa Golden, 34, came to LCC after a complete career path change.
Originally a computer science graduate from Bridgewater State University, Golden took an office job and hated it, so she soon quit.
“I had friends that went to UMass that had studied turf, and I needed a job. So they were like, ‘Come work on a golf course for a summer’,” Golden explained. “And it literally just went from being, ‘this was just going to be my summer job’, to working there fulltime, to deciding I go back to school for it.”
The Roslindale resident earned a second bachelors degree, this time in plant and soil science from UMass-Amherst, and completed her masters in the same field in May. Her research was in drought and turf, more geared towards golf courses, but she is enjoying the transition to tennis.
One of the perks of taking care of the sports turf at elite clubs such as Longwood, is the opportunity to use the club facility. In fact, each year LCC organizes a grounds crew tournament in the summer, open to past and current staff members. For Golden, it was her first time ever playing tennis.
“It was a lot of fun,” she said. “There was a lot of build-up. Everyone was like ‘yeahh, this is the big day’ and then it really was a lot of fun.”
The art of groundskeeping
One of the biggest challenges in maintaining a grass tennis court is the amount of wear the playing surface must endure over hours of play on it. Longwood, like most private clubs in New England with grass tennis courts, counters that problem with a policy that, ironically, bans grass-court shoes. While the small nubs and pimples on the outsole of a grass tennis shoe are good for traction and grip on the slick surface, the extra friction easily tears up the grass. Therefore, Longwood doesn’t allow them. It requires all its members and guests to wear the regular flat-sole shoes they would use on a hard or clay court.
As the men’s member-guest tournament players gathered in front of the clubhouse in late June for the start of play, Larry Wolf, the director of tennis in his 12th season at Longwood, reminded them all of the all-white dress code and the shoe policy.
“No waffle-type bottom shoes, definitely,” Wolf later told me. “Most people know that, but every now and then we might have someone slip up out there, without anyone knowing, because we don’t look at everybody’s shoe. We kind of leave it to people’s responsibility.”
And if nothing else works, a lot of the recreational players at the club actually resort to playing in their bare feet.
To achieve uniformity in the playing surface, sports turf managers use cylindrical rollers, flattening out the grass. Rolling, as explained by Turfgrass Agronomist S.P. Isaac, in the book titled “Grass Tennis Courts: How to construct and maintain them ”, compromises the turf health but is required for the consistent bounce tennis players want. “The action of the roller squeezes air out from between soil particles, effectively increasing the density of the soil, reducing drainage and root development capabilities,” Isaac wrote.
The grounds crew at Longwood rolls the courts only when really needed. For example, after finishing up some cultural maintenance to the grass – making holes in the ground and then dumping soil on top– the surface became a little bumpy. It was not fit for play. That morning, Salmore, wearing a blue jacket, green hat, ear plugs and shades, hopped onto a bright orange Japanese tractor to pull one of the more ancient pieces of equipment still being used at the club – a rusted brown roller from the late 1800s. Pulled by horses, the same roller was originally used to pack down the snow so that horse sleighs could just float over the snow in the trails. It works well on the grass now, Salmore said later.
With play at the club going on from morning till sunset, it doesn’t take long for the painted lines, especially on the baseline, to wear out. To be precise, the LCC crew has devised their own original method to mark the courts after every two to three days. Kneeling down on the clubhouse court, Buras pointed towards a little piece of PVC pipe of three-quarter inch at the baseline. Before the start of the tennis season in spring, they install these pipes in the grass on each corner to mark the layout of the courts. The crew inserts nails in the pipe holes and with a string running on top, the linemarker, following the string, is pushed like a trolly for the white latex paint to be transferred onto the grass.
LCC still uses the original net posts, which they have preserved since the 1890s, for the grass courts. Unlike the clay net posts, which are a permanent fixture, the ones on the grass are taken down so the grounds crew can mow under them and alter the court placement every year. The grounds staff knocks a pipe into the ground with a sledgehammer to make a hole. The pipe is then taken out to be replaced with a plastic sleeve, inside of which the green metal net posts are then inserted.
While their work is heavily reliant on science, the staff at LCC admits there’s an art to it as well. “(Our work’s) very detail-oriented, and there’s a lot of labor, but everything’s done to make it look as good as possible,” said Walsh. “No matter what we say we’re in the industry for, it’s all about aesthetics.”
The artistic expression of a turf grass manager shows up in the mowing patterns made as a final touch. Dark and light shades of green alternate with each strip, as they mow. After they get the courts in playable condition, the LCC staff likes to experiment with new patterns that are particularly prominent from the clubhouse porch, overlooking all the courts.
Some of the common ones at the club are straight vertical lines, horizontal lines and diamond shapes to the rare wavy lines they like to call the ‘six pack’ because that is “what you’d expect when you‘ve drank six packs of beer!” explained Walsh, laughing. Because they constantly change directions of the mower to make the wavy pattern, it’s hard work and makes for quite a spectacle. “You look like Mr. Magoo driving along,” laughed Golden.
Angle mowing, as Buras explained, requires a greater attention to detail compared to the straight lines, because they want to make sure each line is the same width.
For the playing eye, the patterns are less prominent than they would be on a ballpark because of the much shorter length of grass. But with the tennis lines and layout of a court, a very busy and complicated pattern can take away from the charm of the actual tennis court.
“I like patterns that kind of enhance the look of the tennis courts, so I work the pattern in with the tennis lines,” said Salmore.
Hosting the members
For the past 30 years, Longwood’s members have had a familiar face greeting them each time they step onto the courts. Paul Noonan, the tennis “host” at LCC is responsible for court management and arranging games for players, which means that if anyone walks in through the wooden doors of the LCC clubhouse without a practice partner, he has them covered.
A Chestnut Hill resident who finds himself in the club’s vicinity even on his off days, Noonan claims to have a good eye for making a quick assessment of people’s games. Wearing his trademark Trilby hat, which hides his receding hairline and white hair, he walks with a slight limp and strategically places himself on the clubhouse porch, handicapping matches in his head. Nicknamed “the original biker” because he hasn’t driven a car to this day, Noonan, 62, has plantar fasciitis – a common heel disorder – but that doesn’t stop him from staying on his feet all day, enforcing tennis rules and etiquette.
Like the grounds crew, Noonan finds that his days at work have a lot to do with the weather. If the weather’s nice and sunny and it’s a perfect day for tennis, things go smoothly, he’s able to arrange games quickly and the members are satisfied. But when there’s rain and the weather’s bad for tennis, Noonan puts up with disgruntled, annoyed members, anxious just to get a game.
Grey, overcast skies loomed over LCC as light rain came down one Saturday morning. Buras and his crew had just completed the groundswork for the day, right before it started drizzling. The National Father-Daughter Championship, a USTA sanctioned event, was scheduled for the following day, and the 146 players entered into the tournament from all over the country were coming in for registration and practice that afternoon.
Noonan, wearing a blue Underarmour T-shirt and carrying a remote control in his hand, was glued to the television screen downstairs in the clubhouse. As he keenly watched the news, tournament director Wolf entered the room in his all-white tennis attire to get an update on the weather. With a busy few days ahead of them, both men were hopeful that the storm would pass by Longwood.
With the grass slightly damp and the members unable to play all morning, Noonan knew he was in for a tough day ahead, trying to arrange court times for everyone.
“Late this afternoon could be a problem with the weather, you know,” he said matter of factly. “We could have a mob scene here around 3, 4 o’clock. It’s possible.”
As he lightheartedly mimicked the members, demanding games, Noonan said: “Everybody’s your best friend when you’re doing something for them, and then when you can’t help them, they just assume you’re not in their corner.”
When a storm is brewing and he needs to alert members of rain, Noonan usually stands on top of the pavilion stairs and blows a loud horn that calls for stoppage of play. He also has what he calls the “good bell”, that he rings during tournaments, either to make an announcement or to signal a change in rotation for the club’s weekly Wednesday night round-robin.
Turning back the clock
LCC is one of the oldest active tennis clubs in the world, alongside Seabright Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club in Rumson, New Jersey, founded in 1877 and the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London, which was founded in 1875. As soon as you open the front door of the clubhouse on Hammond Street and walk up a few steps, you’re surrounded by tennis history.
The venue for the inaugural Davis Cup tie between U.S.A and Britain in 1900 and 14 other ties after that, Longwood owns a small-sized replica of the Davis Cup trophy, which is on display on a glass shelf inside the clubhouse. In that same row is a circular crystal shield that commemorates the 1997 Federation Cup tie between U.S.A and Japan, which was also played at Longwood. As you move along, on a wooden plaque is a list of all the winners, in golden letters, of the U.S Pro Championship, a warm-up event for the U.S Open, which Longwood hosted from 1964 to 1999.
Old black-and-white photos of former pros and Grand Slam champions in action at Longwood are hung up in frames on the clubhouse walls. Among them is a photo of
Arthur Ashe hitting a forehand volley during his five-set victory over Bob Lutz in 1968 in the only National Amateur Championship played at Longwood. That same year, which saw the beginning of the Open Era in tennis, Ashe went on to win the U.S Open at Forest Hills, as an amateur competing against the pros.
In LCC’s history book, titled, ‘135 Years of Longwood ’, there’s an archived photo of Ashe and partner Ron Holmerg at the net as Stan Smith’s partner Lutz retrieves a ball from the other side, during the 1968 National Doubles semifinal. The picture has a lot of significance for the club, since this was the last year the doubles tournament of the U.S Open was held at Longwood.
The centennial Davis Cup quarterfinal in 1999 between USA and Australia at Longwood, which saw a 4-1 defeat for the Americans, marked the end of professional play at the club. A group picture of the U.S. team – featuring Pete Sampras, Alex O’Brien, Todd Martin and Jim Courier –standing in front of the pavilion with the original cup, also on display inside the clubhouse, refreshes the members’ memories. To this day, Noonan vividly recalls that hot weekend in July.
The packed Sheafe Stadium at Longwood – named in honor of Edwin Sheafe, the club president from 1902 to 1924 – had a hard Decoturf surface laid out in place of the six clay courts there now. In front of a capacity crowd of 5,300, with temperatures soaring well above 100 degrees, the Aussie team led by Noonan’s favorite, Patrick Rafter, halted the Americans. Not impressed by Sampras’s choice to sit out the singles and the sheltered demeanor of the U.S.team, Noonan took the defeat well. “I didn’t cry,” Noonan whispered and then erupted into loud laughter.
However, since 1999, the club has shifted gears and moved away from the professional circuit. Longwood hosts a bunch of national grass tournaments annually – father-son, father-daughter, mother-daughter, the 85 & over and 90 & over age events. Wolf believes it was the evolution of professional tournaments and the increased strain on the club’s resources that brought about the change.
“It’s a big business to run a tournament now,” said Wolf. “Fifteen years ago, the prize money wasn’t as much, the liability wasn’t as much, the responsibility wasn’t as much.”
For Noonan, it was hard for a private club of Longwood’s size to continually meet the demands of the pros. As much as he misses those times himself, it’s the youngsters who miss out the most, in his opinion.
“It was a buzz,” Noonan said. “In one way, I wish we had it now. It was really good for the little guys, boys and girls. They could ball boy, ball girl, they met some players, and I think it inspired a lot of youngsters to play tennis.”
Over time, Noonan has noticed a change in the demographics at the club. While the senior members, wearing their elbow and knee braces for support, are ever-present, there seems to be a growth in the younger population with the evolution of their junior tennis program. The club is now putting more emphasis on the junior players, with teaching clinics, inter-club tournaments and camps, throughout the season. The youngsters are primarily seen in action on clay rather than grass.
“When I first came here, there were very few youngsters, and the young progam was almost non-existent,” said Noonan. “Now it’s massive, really is.”
On competition day, there’s a buzz around the Longwood grounds. With temperature at mid-60, it was a bright and sunny Saturday before the start of Wimbledon. Conditions were perfect for the annual men’s member-guest tournament, which was about to get underway on the LCC grass courts. Wolf placed jugs of ice water, white paper cups and face towels for the participants on a table next to the pavilion stairs. The tennis hosts at the club went around welcoming players and made small talk with the members. A week prior to this, the women’s member-guest event was cancelled due to heavy rain.
Wolf walked up to Buras, who was standing on the clubhouse court, the most popular court in the club, and said: “There are some unhappy women today.”
“Oh, because the weather’s so good?” Buras replied.
Wolf: “The gals are just mad at the guys for getting such a great day!”
The participants – 26 teams – warmed up for their matches. The field was a mix of young and old, all dressed in white shirts and shorts. Noonan standing on the clubhouse porch, under the green and white striped canopy, rang the customary cowbell to get everyone to gather around for the tournament briefing and instructions.
For some of the guests, playing on Longwood’s grass was a new experience. Two guys walked out after finishing their double’s match, and one partner said to the other: “It’s difficult to hit returns on grass.”
On Court 1, on what the members call the “pool row” – since it’s in front of the swimming pool – a Tufts college kid sipped some water during the change of ends and talked to his dad, who was watching, courtside. “I’m finally getting used to it,” he said laughing. “But I’m so slow.”
Longwood welcomes the pros
Through the years, Longwood has played a part in the careers of many top tennis players by opening its grass courts for professionals attempting to get a feel for the surface.
Former Britain No. 1 and world No. 4 Greg Rusedski was good friends with one of the Longwood members. Before making the 1997 U.S Open final and reaching the upper echelons of men’s tennis, Rusedski made frequent visits to Chestnut Hill to hone his grass court game. During his time at the club, he worked with former Longwood tennis pro Buddy Schultz, who Noonan believes, elevated Rusedski’s game.
“Buddy actually made him a top-five player,” Noonan recalled. “When he first got here, he was lumbering, big lefty guy, without too much mobility, big serve, but he really made him a good player.”
LCC also came to the rescue of Argentinian Davis Cup team captain Alberto Mancini back in July 1989. With the Falklands war behind them, the team from Argentina was getting ready for its crucial world group qualifying tie against Great Britian, to be played on the grass of Devonshire Park in Eastbourne, England. Mancini, despite being a top-10 player at the time, had never set foot on a grass court before. Since LCC had an arrangement with the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the week prior to the tie, the club management hosted the Argentine and let him play on their grass. Noonan, who found it odd that a player of Mancini’s calibre had never played on the surface, said the practice paid off. Mancini edged out Britain’s No. 2 player, Chris Bailey, in five grueling sets on Friday, and the Argentinians beat the hosts 3-2 on their home soil.
“If he didn’t get to practice, it would’ve been outrageous. He would’ve lost,” said Noonan,
The Wimbledon Court
Of the 25 natural grass courts at Longwood, lined up one after the other in six rows, Court number 18 is a little bit different. Its darker shade of green and rougher terrain makes it stand out in the crowd. It plays differently too.
In April 2012, Buras and his team scrapped the original surface and laid out a new species of grass called the perennial ryegrass as an experiment. For more than a century, Longwood’s members have played on the ‘poa annua’ (the Latin name for annual bluegrass – even though it’s perennial).
But Buras thinks it’s time for a change. As he explained, the perennial ryegrass for the test court, which is the type used at Wimbledon, is a more deeply rooted grass and more environmentally friendly in comparison with ‘poa annua’. Since it produces less thatch – the spongy organic layer between the grass plant and the soil underneath – and can take up water from deeper in the soil, it requires half the water input that ‘poa annua’ does. According to Buras, ryegrass also wears out less, and “there aren’t any pests in the New England area that really attack this, whereas poa is very susceptible.”
As an agronomist, Buras is highly in favor of converting all the courts at Longwood to the perennial ryegrass, and he says he is confident that this is the way to go. However, the members and the club management, are not quite ready to say goodbye to the century-old surface, just yet.
“Most are in favor (of converting), some want to see it played on more, you know, haven’t made up their minds,” said Buras, standing on Court 18. “But as an agronomist, this is the way we’ll eventually end up going. Whether it’ll be soon or not, eventually we’ll be there.”
Walsh said some of the older members, hesitant about the change, like the original surface more because the extra sponge has less of an impact on the body and is softer on their aging knees.
From a playing standpoint, the “Wimbledon court” or “the funny-looking one”, as members have been heard to call Court 18, has a more consistent and firmer bounce without the extra sponge. You notice the difference after a couple of rallies.
After 30 minutes of trading forehands and backhands with Boston College tennis team member Spencer Canny – who was one of the counselors for the junior summer camp at Longwood – on Court 18, we hopped onto the court next to it. With a lower ball bounce and a faster ball speed off the ground, the rallies got shorter and shorter because it was tough to control the ball. At times, the ball just stopped and didn’t travel through as much as it did on ryegrass.
Wimbledon’s former head groundsman Edward Seaward took the ryegrass route back in 2001, switching from the previous mix of 70 percent rye and 30 percent creeping red fescue. The result has been longer rallies, a departure from the fast-paced serving exhibitions of the old days. As Seaward explained to USA Today in 2011, the harder and drier soil underneath causes the higher bounce, which gives the players more time to react. Hence, there is the perceived notion that the All England Lawn Tennis Club’s grass has slowed down.
While Buras admits that the type of grass plays a huge role in the way the surface will play, he believes there’s more to it. “There are so many facets to managing the turf,” he said. “So, it’s not one thing that’s changed it up, but it’s five percent here and it’s five percent there. Water management and pest management; having great, educated personnel; fertilizer technology, mowing technology, spray technology and how you apply all these things. So it’s all interconnected.”
The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I, which hosts the only ATP grass event in the U.S., right after Wimbledon, has gone from using a mixture of grass species to just bentgrass now on its stadium court. Daniel Robillard, who has been looking after the grass there for 14 years, said the demands of a professional tournament cause them to alter their grass-keeping routines. For the courts to play a bit more firmly, Robillard and his team of seven roll the courts more often prior to the tournament and use less water, just wetting the top and keeping the grass on the dry side.
Entering the off-season
As you walk past the clay courts at LCC, the two storage sheds on the other side of the pathway are hard to miss. That’s where Buras keeps all of the equipment – old and new. With advances in technology, Buras and his team use the Toro Multipro 5800 sprayer to apply pesticides and fertilizer to the grass. Measuring the precise amount of products and water applied, this computer-controlled machine sprays 18 feet wide, for fungus and pest control.
As they rely heavily on scientific research in preparing the courts, the LCC ground staff carries out ‘projects’ in the beginning and near the end of the season because it’s a pretty disruptive process. Thatch is their biggest challenge. The organic side shoot that the grass plant produces acts as a sponge beneath the playing surface. Using a thatcher, Buras’s crew “verticut” the grass, which as Walsh explained is vertical mowing, where instead of cutting the top, they cut down into the grass to remove thatch. “That’s our battle here, thatch,” said Walsh. “We try to make the courts firm, but thatch doesn’t allow for that. It’s a constant battle.”
To carry out such extensive agronomic maintenance without disrupting the club’s tennis, the staff is careful not to get their hands dirty on all the courts at once. They aerated the seven “porch row” courts at the end of September. The court aerator pulled out soil cores and thatch every two inches, making holes in the ground, to allow oxygen to get in the soil and to provide better drainage. After dumping soil on the surface, they then filled up those holes.
But Buras had to wait until the end of the tennis season to start work on the new irrigation and water system for all the 44 courts at LCC. As he explained, it’s a project that happens once every 50 years. “It’s a big deal for us,” Buras said.
During the winter months, when there’s no play at the club, Buras gets busy with hiring and attending trade shows. He also continues to educate himself, to keep up with all the latest advances in turf grass management.
“Managing grass is changing very quickly, just like the medical industry, as far as chemicals and techniques go, and there’s lots of research going on,” said Buras.
The assistant superintendents are also conscious of the changes.
“It’s always an evolving science,” said Walsh. “Mike’s very much in tune with the latest technologies, processes and science and research, and he forces that upon us too, which is a good thing.”
The goal of the LCC grounds crew is to keep improving the quality of the surface each year.
“We’re always trying to get better,” said Walsh. “We’re always trying to do things smarter and more efficiently and also just more beneficial to the grass.”
On November 2, the club closed for the winter, to reopen in April. While the LCC members entered their off-season, for Buras and the grounds crew, the real work was just about to get underway.