Local tennis legend John Powless finds training sanctuary at UW-Madison turf center

2013-07-10T04:00:00Z 2013-07-11T17:52:55Z Local tennis legend John Powless finds training sanctuary at UW-Madison turf centerJACK CULLEN | Wisconsin State Journal | jcullen@madison.com | 608-252-6234 madison.com

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.”

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(7) Comments

  1. kringle1961
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    kringle1961 - July 15, 2013 12:47 pm
    You're wrong nuf.....Honorable doesn't not but the value of the POSITIVE attention he has brought to Madison and Wisconsin over the decades he has been traveling the world playing is worth millions...and that's why no one should bark about this and in fact should thank him for what he does and let him use the facilities for as long as he needs it..and btw the grass is being maintained anyway so the amount of tax payer dollars is so negligable as to be laughable. John could have moved his club training facilities to Florida or Texas years ago but instead he has stayed in Madison and people travel to Madison to work with him. Sour grapes from people who are jealous gets VERY old.
  2. kringle1961
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    kringle1961 - July 12, 2013 9:09 am
    No it's not used for tennis research, however it is a good use of public money if it helps him prepare for tournaments that will bring added notoriety and positve attention to Madison and Wisconsin. If there was a world class player living in Madison, highly unlikely due to Wisconsin's tax climate, but if there were it would be an excellent use of public money to let that player use the facility in order to prepare for Wimbledon or other major grass court tournaments. Is it "fair" that John can use the facility and you or I can't? Probably not...but then again life's not fair and we aren't world class tennis players if we had put in the countless hours to get to that level and had the national reputation he has we'd get the same consideration. Instead of saying it's not fair and being jealous we should all hit the courts and try to achieve the level John has and then we could earn some of that kind of opportunity.
  3. nufsenuf
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    nufsenuf - July 10, 2013 8:08 pm
    All are admirable attributes, yet no different than those possessed by many others in this city. His seem to be magnified either because they are sports related or because of the notoriety afford by his association with a public supported institution. Honorable or not he does not deserve or warrant a penny of tax=related support.
  4. lesdmd
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    lesdmd - July 10, 2013 7:26 pm
    kringle, no one is disputing that John Powless has contributed to the community, or that he is a sports legend, or that he is a modest man. I am not qualified to comment on any of this since I am relatively new to the State and knew nothing about the man before I read the article. Your suggestion that "John can provide value that can be used..." seems like a stretch since the story clearly states that the "facility does not do research for grass tennis courts".
    Mr. Cullen and his article leaves me with the implication that some impropriety was made in providing special privileges (land on which to play, maintenance(?) of his court) to Mr. Powless. This is not how I expect our publicly funded (I am assuming that is the case here) resources are supposed to be operated. We do not have royalty, either by birth or assignment, in this country and despite his accomplishments Mr. Powless should be treated, as far as the expenditure of public monies is concerned, like every other citizen. I doubt that you or I would qualify for our own tennis court. If, on the other hand, Mr. Powless was honored by the governor and had this privilege bestowed on him, it would have been nice if the writer had pointed this out.

  5. kringle1961
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    kringle1961 - July 10, 2013 2:06 pm
    To nufsenuf and metal....when you are named as Senior Tennis Player of Millenium then you can complain. Did you ever stop to consider that the input John can give can provide value that can be used to improve the quality of the grass used...and that a profit can be made from that grass? John is incredible generous with his time, giving clinics at no cost to hundreds of kids throughout Madison and the area just because he was asked and to get more kids into an sport that will benefit them for a lifetime. An abuse of public funds? Get serious.....John Powless is one of the greatest ambassadors Madison and Wisconsin have ever had. He has MORE than paid for anytime he may make use of the grass at the UW facility. Instead of looking with such a narrow view I suggest you take a step back and consider what you are saying and get on a court...a lesson from John is one of best hours you will EVER spend. John is one of the least egotistical men I've ever known or worked with. tc
  6. nufsenuf
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    nufsenuf - July 09, 2013 11:04 pm
    Is this totally maintained with private money? I sense another UW abuse of the taxpayer's money. Once again the aura of UW athletics perpetuates the 'good old boy' club. As for Powless, his ego and his records, I for one could care less. If this is another abuse of public funds, I am greatly concerned. I'm beginning to believe this institution has it's priorities poorly focused.
  7. metal
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    metal - July 09, 2013 7:34 pm
    typical poorly written wisconsin story. Fails to even mention if this court is available for members of the public to ever use. Gee, you know, someone reading this story might wonder if anyone else can maybe play on it besides John?? Kudos to John though for everything hes done for Madison tennis.
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