Setting the Pace
The USTA’s technical staff uses equipment that measures the pace of tennis courts so play is always consistent.
Court builders know that they can vary the playability of the courts they build, so they can give court and facility owners exactly the court speed and pace they’re looking for. But you may not be aware that there are a couple of standard testing procedures that the USTA uses to measure the pace of a tennis court.
When testing court pace, the USTA uses both the Tortus machine and the ITF Haines Pendulum. The Tortus is a compact, self-propelled machine that travels a short distance in a straight line on the court surface. Inside is a weighed tool with a friction foot that rides along the surface, measuring the frictional characteristics of the surface along the travel length to determine the pace of the court by providing a value for the coefficient of friction.
The USTA takes measurements at seven different areas of a court to determine the overall pace of the court, says Geoff Norton, the USTA’s national manager of technical programs. For instance, he and his colleague, USTA Technical Consultant Suresh Ponnusamy, take readings near the net along the singles sideline, near the center service line, and near the baseline.
The ITF Haines Pendulum is a precision machine about 3.5 feet tall. The pendulum arm has a ball attached to its foot and swings from a standard height, rubbing the ball across the court surface for a predetermined contact length. A needle pointer, attached to the pendulum arm, provides a reading of the energy loss (due to the ball contacting the surface) in the resulting swing, which depends on the frictional characteristics of the surface. This value is then used to calculate the coefficient of friction of the surface. The ITF Haines Pendulum can be used to test other court surfaces, both hard and soft, whereas the Tortus, in particular, is mostly suitable for use on hard acrylic courts, says Ponnusamy. (The Tortus machine actually is a floor-friction tester developed in England. It’s available from a company in the UK called Severn Science Ltd., at severnscience.co.uk.)
The USTA takes a particular interest in using its Tortus machine to test the courts at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home of the US Open. Also, Norton says, USTA staff brings the machine to other sites, such as the venues for the US Open Series of pro tournaments.
“We wanted to make sure when we put the US Open Series in place that players would be playing on relatively the same speed courts all the way through to the US Open. Also, we want to give feedback to the court builders,” says Norton
“The courts at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center are tested for pace before the start of the US Open, and a follow-up test is performed after the tournament for studying surface wear,” says Ponnusamy. “We’re not finding a real big difference between the two readings.”
Of course, temperature and humidity also can affect the pace of a court, and when the USTA tests court pace with the Tortus, Norton and Ponnusamy will take readings of surface and air temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure, and those numbers are plugged into a formula with the Tortus readings to determine the overall pace.
One thing that definitely affects the pace of a tennis court is age. “For a hard court, the older the court — that is, the longer between resurfacing — the faster it will play,” says Norton. Since the courts used for the US Open and Open Series tournaments are resurfaced every year right before the events, the age of the court surface doesn’t become a real factor in determining pace.
Most court builders, of course, won’t have a Tortus machine to test the pace of their courts. And, in fact, for most recreational play, that amount of precision in court speed probably isn’t necessary.
However, the day may come when a court owner or facility manager can tell a court builder he wants the pace of his courts to fall between a certain range, or a facility or resort can advertise the pace range of their courts to potential members or guests.