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My Path to Wimbledon: Conrad Cavill, Groundstaff

My Path to Wimbledon: Conrad Cavill, Groundstaff: Inspiring new recruits from all walks of life to join the sector is the critical, but concerning focus for #GroundsWeek 2024.

The main characters of sport’s folklore are almost always its coaches and athletes. The set designers for those stories, however, are in short supply. Research carried out by the Grounds Management Association highlights that 40 per cent of the current workforce is over 50 years old and without an influx of new recruits, this could result in a significant employment gap within five years.

My Path to Wimbledon: Conrad Cavill, Groundstaff

My Path to Wimbledon: Conrad Cavill, Groundstaff

Through speaking to the All England Club’s Conrad Cavill, we hope to illuminate the art of Groundsmanship and demystify the industry sport is indebted to.

Pathetic fallacy in most narratives would involve a scene with the sun smiling down bright and beaming rays. This biography, however, is not like the rest. Unique in that a summer’s day shine, spurred an imminent escape:

“When I was in college, I did a week work experience at Southampton’s training ground.

“Years went by jumping around jobs. I was working in a call centre. I looked out on a day like this. It was sunny and I thought, I just don’t want to do this. I want to be outside.

“I remembered my time at Southampton. That’s when I looked into Grounds again. I found a Sports Turf Degree and went straight into education again.”

Incredible that a throwaway week’s work experience at the age of 17 years old would be the catalyst to an extraordinary Grounds career that would later cross Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Initially dropping out of a Football Business degree, Conrad’s first attempt at university didn’t stick. His second however, fared much better, returning to education a few years later through the University Centre Myerscough to undertake a Sportsturf degree. This time accompanied with lived experience shaping an unshakeable ambition:

“I wanted a degree. I wanted something. Without any experience, apart from that week at Southampton, I just went straight in and started a degree.”

Recognised as one of the leading academies in the country by holding ‘Category One’ status in the Premier League’s ‘Elite Player Performance Plan’, Southampton Football Club are widely renowned for the players they’ve platformed. The roll call of graduates who list the Staplewood campus as their alma matter includes three time Southampton Player of the Season, Matt Le Tissier; Premier League all-time top scorer, Alan Shearer; England’s youngest ever player at 17 years and 75 days old, Theo Walcott; five time UEFA Champions League Winner, Gareth Bale; and UEFA Champions League and Premier League winner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

My Path to Wimbledon: Conrad Cavill, Groundstaff

My Path to Wimbledon: Conrad Cavill, Groundstaff

Something, clearly, is in the waters. It’s a culture that permeates. Conrad explains that “people that were there at that time” during his week work experience “have gone on to be at the top of the game”, listing fort leaders of the industry in Karl Stanley – Wembley Stadium Grounds Manager, Andy Gray – St. George’s Park Head of Grounds and Estates, and David Roberts – former Liverpool Football Club Grounds Manager.

“I remember it being busy and tough. I did a lot of leaf clearing and collection!” he laughs as he recollects his week with the Saints, “because I had no experience, there’s not much I could really do”. His first week at Wimbledon, however, was night and day.

“You’re on a mower, straightaway. It didn’t matter what experience you had. They were keen, they just wanted you out there, getting used to the machines.

“They weren’t scared to put people on, they were just happy to get you going. We were straightaway doing proper things, rather than just collecting things up. That’s what I remember, they were very welcoming and made you part of the team.”

A wonderful example of The Wimbledon Way. Our common purpose – together creating joy and extraordinary moments by giving everyone an unforgettable Wimbledon experience – exercised for staff as well.

First week inductions are not the only point of difference with Wimbledon. Conrad confesses that “the amount of pressure you have working here is extremely high, but it has a lot more relaxed nature about it”. Comparing to his various experiences in golf, he explains the cat-and-mouse nature of Groundsmanship on a course, rather than a court.

“You’re starting at 6am, and the first golfers are going on as soon as it’s light. You’re practically being chased by the golfers.

“Whereas here, even in the height of summer, we have until 11 o’clock. We’re a lot more relaxed, we can make sure everything is done right, we’re not rushing. Here, you’ve got a lot more time for the attention to detail.”

Get this for another first. Conrad’s first year with the All England Club, as one of the seasonal staff brought in to support the delivery of The Championships, coincided with   London 2012. The first Olympic grass court tournament since tennis was reintroduced as an Olympic sport, and the first to be held at a Grand Slam venue in the Open era.

“I’ll potentially never have that again. As a sports fan, it was amazing, especially with Andy Murray winning. As a Groundsperson, where we had less than a month to get the baselines back to green after The Championships, to see how they did that was amazing.”

Something as illustrious as the Olympics, the pantheon of sport, will shine on any resume; but that should not detract from the breadth of Conrad’s CV. Following his stint at Southampton, where he continued as a matchday mower, was another fortunate first: England v Sri Lanka, 2011. The inaugural Test Match at the then Rose Bowl, and the first Test Match ever played in Hampshire, “a great experience doing that”.

Two seasons was then spent at Wimbledon, before an excursion to the USA. Another opportunity courtesy of Myerscough, connecting Conrad with The Ohio Program whereby the American university land students an internship in the States, where he was able to work at Baltimore Country Club and Miami Beach’s La Gorce Country Club, “which again, was amazing. I never thought I would be able to do that. I always wanted to travel, but to be part of, work and have a year somewhere was amazing.”

Another opportunity courtesy of Myerscough, connecting Conrad with The Ohio State Program whereby the American university land students an internship in the States.

His favourite visit though, was the next six months spent in New Zealand:

“That’s one of my favourite places. New Zealand was unbelievable. Personally, I would love to move there.”

My Path to Wimbledon: Conrad Cavill, Groundstaff

My Path to Wimbledon: Conrad Cavill, Groundstaff

Returning back to the UK developed his armoury even further. First, he worked on a golf course, “which again was good because I had worked at all of these professional venues, and then I found myself at a normal golf club”, before moving to Hurlingham.

“There was nothing available at Wimbledon. I moved to Hurlingham Club where they have grass tennis courts and croquet, to gain that experience, so when a job did come up here, I was in a really good position.”

A vast career that has crossed cities and conquered sport: football, cricket, golf, and tennis. A Tour de Grounds, and Conrad had this advice for those starting out in their careers:

“Youngers, definitely travel and gain experience.

“I wish I had done this earlier! I wish I had come out of school and did my National Diploma. I could have travelled more. As I got older it was difficult because it became harder visa-wise. Because I would have loved to go to Europe as well.”

Despite his array of industry experience, Conrad still has a bucket list that spurs him on.  “I would love to and have always wanted to, although it’s expensive, go to Scandinavia.”

“I have heard people who have gone and done it, and they loved it. When I look back and see the photos of New Zealand and I see the mountains in the background. Golf courses in Norway that have forests in the background. That kind of stuff, that’s what I love about it.”

Wimbledon may not house hectares of forest similar to those that steal the scene in Scandinavia, but our special mix of grass courts with ivy walls and hydrangeas adjacent, are just as magical. The Championships has seen generations come and go. Each with their own momentous rivalries, triumphant feats, and heroic defeats. Historic and career-defining moments of unexpected that have taken place on the world’s most prestigious tennis stage.

Unimaginable to picture those moments without the two-tone lawn green customary backdrop with which Wimbledon is intrinsically linked. Our English country garden setting has been the ‘always’ of Wimbledon since its formation. Something Conrad is acutely aware of.

“For me, I love building up to The Championships. That’s what’s special. The build-up. You’ve got something to aim for. And then it starts all again. That’s a great feeling. That’s what I love”.

It’s ‘always like never before’.

A mantra that emphasises the honouring of iconic history, balanced with continual innovation. To be at the pinnacle of sport. That, in Grounds, includes technology.

“They’ve embraced it. Even down to the machines that we’re using on courts. The mowers have gone electric. We’re looking at electric sprayers. Although the machines are staying the same, the technology has changed drastically. When we were first looking at electric mowers, you would have had to have dragged the battery around with you.

“It’s improving for the good, and hopefully that will just continue.”

Wimbledon has a pivotal role to play in helping to protect the environment, today and for the future. As part of our ongoing journey of environmental sustainability, electric lawnmowers and horticulture equipment are used around the Grounds. The most famous of which, of course, is Little Nicky, the small GPS-guided robotic mower – trundling up and down the slope of The Hill, trimming back any new growth. Which, Conrad confesses, wasn’t love at first sight.

My Path to Wimbledon: Conrad Cavill, Groundstaff

My Path to Wimbledon: Conrad Cavill, Groundstaff

“I was very sceptical. I didn’t like the idea. But when you see what it can do on an area like that” – one teeming with spectators: sunbathing, sipping and soaking up Wimbledon’s atmosphere and giant-screen action during The Championships – it results in an effective reallocation of resource. “You might have lost two people up there a few days a week.”

Conrad makes clear throughout the conversation the formula for progression in the industry. Innovation is one half of the equation. Collaboration is the other. “You’ve always got things to learn”, explaining that one of the effects of COVID-19 is now being corrected, “we have just started doing site visits again”. During the winter, with the weather unfavourable for attending to the grass courts, our Grounds department use this time to focus on the educational side of the job.

This year the team received talks from various industry partner and supplier stakeholders, including the Marketing Manager of DLF – the world’s largest producer and distributor of grass seed and home to one of the world’s largest research and breeding programmes for both turf and forage, and the Vice President of Stevens Water Monitoring Systems – experts in Hydrology, Environmental Monitoring, Soil physics and chemistry, and Agronomy, speaking about a new addition to their irrigation department’s arsenal.

Externally, All England Club Groundstaff visited The Queen’s Club. A useful comparison exercise, witnessing the range of racket sports on offer and how their team adapt and prepare for The Cinch Championships. Outside of tennis, the team travelled to Twickenham in the lead up to England taking on Ireland on Saturday 9 March during the penultimate round of the 2024 Six Nations Championship, to understand the challenges of a sand-based pitch and the differences in maintenance. Finally, the team were hosted by Origin Amenity at their research facility at Throws Farm, Essex, as part of an ‘Open Research Day’ to discuss disease pressure monitoring and prevention.

“It’s going and seeing what they’re doing, the technology they’re using and how we can transfer that across. If we just stay here, in our little bubble, we wouldn’t learn. Learning keeps you at the top, keeps you at a high level.

“That’s what I love about this industry. It’s so small and everyone respects each other. If you get a question from anyone else, everyone’s happy to help and try guide people in the right direction”.

It’s a close-knit, connected community. They look out for each other whilst setting the stages for stories to unfold. The annual campaign of #GroundsWeek aims to raise the nation’s awareness of grounds management, celebrating its vital importance within sport. Encouraging those with ‘career curiosity’ to take their first steps into pursuing a rewarding role within the sector. To young sports fans everywhere, and to those longing for a career change:

“Don’t be scared to challenge yourself. I left a perfectly good job to risk going into a new industry. It’s that hesitancy, but once you do it, you challenge yourself, you’re going to get stronger and stronger.”

Written by Aman Ahmed

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