Feature Article - July/August 2005
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SPECIAL SUPPLEMENT
A Complete Guide to Sports Surfaces and Flooring

Sure Footing

By Kyle Ryan


COURTS IN SESSION
TENNIS

Dick Gould has worked for Stanford University's tennis program for nearly four decades, so he has witnessed the evolution of court surfacing over the years. His tenure is comparatively brief compared to the concrete foundations of most of his courts, which have been there since 1926 and still are used today. When Gould went to Stanford in the 1950s, he played on concrete, which probably sounds barbaric to people accustomed to today's comfy surfaces.

"The concrete would wear smooth," he says. "They'd get like glass, and we'd have to sandblast them to get a little roughness on them so that you wouldn't be slipping and sliding around, especially when the courts got a little dirty."

In the 1960s, with the advent of acrylic finishes, the courts became more forgiving and less of a pain to maintain. The acrylics could be mixed with sand for gripping power and painted onto the courts. By adjusting the size of the sand granules, facility operators could vary the speed of the court: The bigger and more plentiful granules per square inch, the slower the court.

With the development of full synthetic systems, Gould finally found what he considered the perfect surface. It played better, and it looked better.

"We could color the courts," he says. "They were green and red, and now they're green and lighter green. But that's aesthetically been very pleasing because our backdrops and windscreens are all green as well, and the seats are all green. It's a nice aesthetic feeling on the court."

More important, though, were the seemingly endless options for playing. The courts could be personalized to a facility operator's exact specifications.

"You had the ability to make it a rather slow court or even a medium slow court or a fast slow court or a slow fast court as you wish by controlling the mixture," Gould says. "They've gotten pretty scientific about this."

No kidding. When D.J. Bosse opened his health club, the former tennis pro wanted his nine indoor courts to feel just like the ones he played on at the Australian Open in 1990 and 1992.

"I wanted our speed to be the exact same speed as the Australian Open center court," Bosse says. "So that's the actual speed that my courts are, but you can adjust it by taking some sand out of the mix."

Some elite players use his courts, but so do a lot of people who just enjoy playing tennis. He wanted durable courts that played like professional ones but were comfortable and forgiving. He found what he needed.

"The cushioning and the give, it makes members feel like they are playing on clay," Bosse says. "But you know, it really plays like a hard court, which makes it very nice. It isn't for everyone because it's an expensive court, but in the long run, it's a no-brainer to put in a system like this."

Hard courts play well with people who don't have to spend all day on them, but for instructors, they can be unforgiving.

"It's actually making a big difference on my instructors and my teachers," Bosse says. "I used to teach 40, 50 hours a week, and on the hard court, I could feel it when I get home, where as on [this one], you really don't."

Bosse's courts are protected from the elements, so he expects to get about seven to 10 years out of his surface. The rubber mat that provides some of the cushioning underneath the top surface layer has a 30-year life. Out in Palo Alto, Gould expects to get about five years out of his court surfaces.

"I try to do it budget-wise every five years," he says. "At the end of the five years, if they're still playing pretty well, or if sometimes it's a tough budget crunch, we'll go six or seven years. They still play pretty well. But after seven or eight years, they start showing their wear pretty definitively."

"As the dust gets in the surface as you play on it, gradually any kind of artificial surface that's on a base will give way," he says. "It gets a little slick as the sand wears smoother over the years. It'll get a little slick, a little slippery especially if the courts aren't kept reasonably clean."

The process is a gradual one, of course, but Gould keeps a close eye on how well the courts play.

His cleaning method is as about as low-tech as it gets: a water hose. The cleaning staff comes in once a week and hoses the courts down. In Sudbury, Bosse keeps the courts free from debris and gives them a pressure wash once a year.

Perhaps most surprising about Gould's courts, specifically their concrete foundations, is that they've somehow made it for 80 years. Although the concrete has rebar reinforcement, it sits on top of adobe soil, which has a habit of expanding and contracting that leads to cracks in the concrete and on the playing surface itself. Gould just accepts their inevitability.

"We have cracks in the court, and no matter how much you do resurfacing, you're going to have those cracks," he says. "They're not bad cracks; they don't affect play. You resurface them, and for a while at least the cracks don't crack the surface. But you'll see little spider marks where the cracks appear over time. But that's not a playing problem."

Gould suspects soil caused problems with some of the school's asphalt-foundation courts as well. Long ago, a farm stood on the land now used by Stanford. Mixed in with the soil was a lot of manure, which Gould thinks caused methane gas to bubble up through the asphalt. Fixing it required a pretty involved process.

"I think the point is any time you have courts, you have to be pretty careful about where you put them down," he says. "We haven't had any problems with them after the first couple of years."

Gould avoided asphalt altogether on some newer courts at Stanford that use post-tension concrete and are basically crack-proof, he says. Even though the courts can take a lot of abuse, Gould doesn't take any chances. Only tennis is allowed on the courts. The same goes for the ones at the Bosse Sports Club.