For years, John Powless tried cutting and watering grass in his Middleton backyard to simulate playing on Centre Court at Wimbledon.
While Powless was able to train on both hard and clay courts at the Madison tennis center he owns, the world’s top-ranked 80-year-old tennis player wanted to find a surface that resembled playing on the courts at the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
Fifteen years ago, Powless discovered a solution: a court that soon became his sanctuary.
Tucked behind Highway M, the grass court sits in the midst of 25 acres of myriad turf grass varieties at the UW-Madison O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility.
“It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the world,” Powless said. “Only a few places on the planet have this quality of grass.”
Tom Schwab, superintendent of the facility, said Powless came to him more than 15 years ago to see if the facility had any space for him to play on to prepare for International Tennis Federation grass court tournaments during the summer.
“We were somewhat surprised at first, but we were honored that he wanted our help,” Schwab said. “It’s great to have a legend like him out here for a few days every summer.”
The facility does not do research for grass tennis courts, but Schwab designates two research plots every summer for Powless to train on.
Before Powless arrived for his first practice session, Schwab outlined the 78-foot by 39-foot dimensions of a regulation size tennis court with crisp white paint to match the pristine allure of Centre Court at Wimbledon.
But the 100 percent creeping bentgrass did not play like other grass courts Powless had played on before. It measured half an inch — too high for tennis and similar to the height of fairway grass on a golf course. The height made the grass too slippery to run across and prompted inconsistent, irregular bounces, Powless said.
So Schwab painted new lines on creeping bentgrass that measured five-thirty-seconds of an inch.
While Wisconsin’s cold climate does not allow the facility to maintain the five-sixteenths of an inch high 100 percent perennial rye grass used at Wimbledon, Powless was in heaven.
“It has made a world of difference,” said Powless, who was the Badgers men’s basketball coach from 1969 to 1976. “You can’t just think about playing on grass before actually playing a match on grass. It takes conditioning.”
Powless has played at the famous English tennis club and said the O.J. Noer facility’s surface is better than Wimbledon’s grass at times. His practice court is invisible from the road because he supplies his own net and backdrops that he stakes in the ground behind each baseline to keep balls from rolling too far.
Powless said sometimes he practices alone with his ball machine. Other times, he may bring his son and sparring partner, Jason Powless, who said he plays on the court every chance he gets because quality grass courts are so hard to come by in the Midwest.
“There’s a definite peace to it, whether you’re playing well or not, because it’s a whole different world out there,” said Jason Powless, a full-time teaching professional at his father’s club and co-director of Wayland Academy Nike Tennis Camp in Beaver Dam with his father. “It’s special in the fact that this is how the game was intended to be played. It’s the absolute best.”
To maintain its quality, the grass is mowed five to six times a week, watered regularly, top dressed with a light layer of sand every three weeks to keep the grass standing upright, and given fertilizer and fungicide when needed.
While Powless does not know yet if he will be competing at the British Senior Grass Court Championships at Wimbledon in August, he is currently training for the United States Tennis Association’s National Men’s Grass Court Championships, also in August, at the Orange Lawn Tennis Club in South Orange, N.J.
During a recent practice session with his ball machine at the research facility on July 3, Powless hit dozens of balls over the net and close to the lines; his competitive nature showed after he hit a ball into the net for the first time and let himself have it.
When asked what his favorite shot was on grass, he responded, “the one that you don’t get back.”