UMass Amherst researching tennis turf

Some of the most accomplished amateur lawn tennis players in the country have tested the footing for a groundstroke or an overhand smash at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Joseph Troll Turf Research and Education Center in South Deerfield to help researchers there evaluate how different turfgrass surfaces affect play and stand up under real-life, match-play punishment.

The research is funded with a $60,000 grant from the New England Regional Turfgrass Foundation. For the work, J. Scott Ebdon, professor of agronomy and turfgrass science at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, with colleagues including associate professor Michelle DaCosta, established three official-size single courts at the research center to evaluate turfgrass tolerance under actual tennis play.

At the recent event on June 10, six experienced players from the Longwood Cricket Club (LCC) in Chestnut Hill came to play at the turf research center in South Deerfield to, in Ebdon’s words, “impose a useful level of traffic injury on grass courts to allow for evaluation of wear.” Using results of preliminary research, he and DaCosta, with Ph.D. student Alan Michael Turner, narrowed the number of grass cultivars and species in this test to eight. They use a combination of expert visual inspection and a light-reflecting machine and software to evaluate turf damage.

There are about 20 lawn tennis facilities in the United States, located mostly in the Northeast from New Jersey to New England, where 10,000 to 20,000 amateur and professional players seek out grass courts for friendly matches to tournaments, says Michael Buras, LCC grounds director and a 1997 graduate of the UMass Amherst turf program. He says that of Longwood’s 1,200 members, probably 1,000 regularly play on grass. He adds, “Of course, one of the world’s most prestigious Grand Slam tournaments, the Wimbledon Championship, is also played on grass.”

Buras says the grass court pro tennis tour starts in mid-June in Germany and is followed by three tournaments in the U.K., this year from June 10 to July 1. Wimbledon begins on July 3 and closes on July 15, after which many up-and-coming young players will travel to Newport, R.I., for the Hall of Fame Open from July 16-23. Buras says the LCC, sometimes host of the U.S. Tennis Association amateur grass court championships won by Arthur Ashe at LCC in 1968, will hold its annual exhibition tournament in August, which draws many Hall of Fame players.

Ebdon says UMass Amherst is the only institution in the nation conducting research on natural grass for lawn tennis. “This research will directly benefit the turf manager responsible for maintaining any grass court and indirectly will benefit the player and society by improving the tolerance of the grass to traffic in match play,” he adds. The research is expected to offer valuable new information to managers of other turf areas such as golf, grass sports such as football and soccer, and residential lawns.

DaCosta points out that research to identify the best turf for playing fields not only benefits turf managers at ball parks, soccer fields and golf courses but it also increases player safety by minimizing slippery and bare spots that can lead to injury. It took a full week of measurements and other evaluation after the recent tennis matches to assess turf wear. She adds, “Grasses are important to our culture, and not just for athletics. A lot of what we study here is applicable to other crops including to cereals and grains.”

In addition to UMass Amherst researchers and graduate students who collected turf wear data, Buras and Larry Wolf, Longwood’s director of tennis, collected player feedback. Buras says, “All of us, and I’m not just speaking for LCC, see constant play through the season and for all the tournaments. We all always are looking for ways to keep the grass courts in good shape over those weeks and months of use.”

Buras adds that of special interest to him from Ebdon and DaCosta’s studies will be their evaluation of different grass types for not only wear but factors such as surface firmness and ball bounce. “UMass Amherst is a top research leader in the country looking at grass courts,” he notes. “It is one of the few places that conducts wear trials on different species and compares newer to older cultivars. In the weeks leading up to Wimbledon at the end of June, where the play is on grass, it’s exciting to be taking part in this turf research at UMass.”

As Ebdon points out, grass courts are more difficult to manage and, like golf greens, require a high level of training to maintain. In fact many grass courts are associated with golf courses, he notes. “This project is notable as the first and only funded research project to investigate turfgrasses that are optimal for tennis.”

Founded in 1877, Longwood Cricket Club has played a pioneering role in the evolution of tennis. Originally a cricket club, its members took up lawn tennis, began organizing regional tournaments and moved to its current Chestnut Hill location in 1922. Today the club has members playing all levels of tennis and participating in a wide range of social activities. Its transition from cricket to tennis began in 1878 when the club added its first lawn tennis court.

The New England Regional Turfgrass Foundation’s research trust funds turfgrass research and produces and distributes a research newsletter to share current information on turfgrass research done in New England. The trust works with universities and industry members by sharing research information.

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