Macadam courts - nearing the end of the road?
En Tout Cas' Rory Shepherd recalls building courts more than 40 years ago, and looks at the pros and considerable cons of this venerable court surface…
WHEN I joined En Tout Cas in the early seventies and was promoted to contracts manager, my father Bob, pictured below, was the general manager for tennis courts and bowling greens for the whole country. As a result, I was given the less than enviable task of being on site whilst the first alleged “non-softening” porous macadam tennis surfaces were being laid.
One of my tasks was to check the macadam temperature on delivery. These loads had to somewhere were between 160 and 170 degrees Centigrade. To do this, I had to climb on to the lorry, dig into the load and put a thermometer into the hot tarmac. I also had to visually inspect the aggregate grading of each lorry load. This is an activity, unsurprisingly, no longer allowed by the health and safety plans of the macadam manufacturers.
The main reason for developing this non-softening macadam was to allow colour painting in the first year. It was also designed to stop courts breaking up, when players’ shoes twisted on playing surfaces, which softened in hot weather in the first years of their life.
As well as curtailing our acrobatics on trucks, a standard for macadams came in that set the maximum temperature this could be manufactured at 150 Centigrade, which of course it rarely achieves. The problem this gives us is that the temperature falls to 38 Centigrade, the hardening point of the binder, more quickly. The result is that there is less time to roll the surface smooth. A porous macadam surface that is not smooth will be much weaker and will make the tennis ball bounce much higher.
Add to this the fact that there is nowhere near as much material of this type laid today, and 6mm high quality aggregate is much harder to source. The few suppliers left are disinterested in achieving the quality that was once regarded as normal. As a result, making a really good, long-lasting painted porous macadam court is much more difficult than it was years ago.
There is no cushioning in these courts. The latex that was once added to the binder was used to raise the temperature at which it softened. Early Macadam courts were laid on ash and had some give, as time went by. It was also the custom to maintain the court by roiling it. My father would advise court owners to (I can almost hear him today): “Give it a good roll on a warm day in the spring.” Any initial enthusiasm that owners had for this sort of heavy manual labour waned over time. This led to tennis courts, of whatever type, being built with very hard stone foundations. As a result, any cushioning has gone from the base and must today be incorporated in the surfacing system.
This is an important matter. Rafa Nadal wrote in the Guardian that when he retires professionally, he will not be able to play recreational tennis due to the impact of hard courts on his body.
The idea of all-weather courts in the UK is widely misunderstood. All-weather courts are exclusively indoors. You can not play tennis in the snow, ice, fog, heavy rain. Damp conditions cause painted porous macadam courts to be slippery. That’s because surface tension causes water to stay on the surface and not go down into the matrix. It can often be an idea to hose the court down in these conditions, to break the surface tension. As I always tell our customers, you can have an all-year-round court but an all-weather court is something for the likes of California, and not the UK.
There is no non-attention surface available. Painted porous macadam courts need detritus, leaves, bird muck, and the like removing as they occur, at least once a week. It’s important to spray the court with moss killer up to four times a year, to pressure wash the court, perhaps on an annual basis. In areas of clean air, bi-annual cleaning will be sufficient. Generally, these courts will need the application of a clean binder coat and repainting every five years and resurfacing at either the ten- or 15-year stage.
It is my view that the world has moved on and these courts saw their prime some time ago. Nearly 50 years is a long run for any product. To use a common phrase, it was a different time. People drove Morris Minors and smoked pipes when I started laying these courts and they have done well, but clients now rightly expect more. They want cushioning, consistent quality, fast resurfacing times, and a longer life for the court. Whilst painted porous macadam offers the lowest initial cost for a tennis court I would argue that due to its cost in use, the cost in wear and tear on players, and periods when it is not safely usable, it does not offer the best value solution in today’s tennis court range of offers.
On personal note, I have not played on a hard court since I was fifty!