THE RIGHT MINERAL IS KEY TO A GOOD TENNIS COURT
Industrial Minerals by Harold Hough
At first glance, Luck Stone is just another successful aggregate company of the East Coast. It is one of the largest private, family owned aggregate businesses in the United States and has been in the same family for three generations.
However, Luck Stone has a major business unit that seems to have little to do with aggregate – building tennis courts. It’s a little known fact that clay courts are rarely made of clay. They “clay” surface in top resorts, country clubs, and homes is actually finely ground stone. And the most recognized brand in the world is HAR-TRU a surface manufactured from a billion year old pre-Cambrian metabasalt that’s naturally green in color and found in a unique vein of stone running through Charlottesville, Virginia – at Luck Stone’s Charlottesville Plant.
The story begins in the 1950s when an engineer named Robert Lee began looking at tennis surfaces and their weaknesses. Up to that time, red clay was the standard because it was what was used in Europe, the cultural center of tennis.
Unfortunately, red clay courts weren’t that good. Clay is unique to each region and the local clay used by each court had different characteristics. This wasn’t a problem when everyone stuck to their own court, but as travel grew and tennis became an international sport, the different characteristics of each court became apparent. That’s why “home court advantage” was so important. The local player knew the local tennis court and its unique clay surface so well that they could beat most visiting opponents.
The only answer was to maintain the various courts in such a way that they had more common play characteristics. Unfortunately, in order to do that, the maintenance of the courts became a specialized skill as the courts reacted differently, depending on the type of local red clay. There was also the problem of finding exactly the same clay when repairs were needed or an expansion was planned.
Lee studied different materials to find one that had the best properties. The one he found was a stone mined in Pennsylvania. It is a natural green stone which is extremely hard and angular, two very important qualities when it comes to tennis court construction. The angularity helps the stone particles lock together to form a durable, stable playing surface. He also discovered a source in Virginia, which encouraged him to go into the tennis court surfacing business, just as tennis was beginning to sweep the country.
The metabasalt had several benefits over the traditional red clay. Most important for players, the ball bounce on this surface was uniform and slower than other surfaces. This allowed for longer rallies, a more controlled game, and more excitement for the audience. It also drained faster than solid surfaces, which reduces revenue losing rain delays or rain outs (an important factor in the days of televised sports).
There are also advantages for private players. Since it was a pulverized rock, there was less shock to the body during play, which reduced injuries. It was a cooler surface during the summer and the surface was easier on the eyes and shoes.
When Robert Lee retired in 1997, his company, Lee Tennis, was purchased by Luck Stone, a long time partner and supplier of the crushed stone for Lee Tennis.
They key to producing tennis court material is consistency. That’s why all the materials are made in house and controlled with frequent quality controls. A small variance in the size of the crushed rock will make the court faster and change the bounce of the ball. Therefore, the rock is crushed, carefully screened, and the particle size graded in order to ensure that the final product has a uniform consistency.
Even the exact composition of the rock can change the properties of the tennis court, so the employees have to blend stone material from different parts of the quarry in order to maintain a uniform product.
The result of this attention to detail is that Luck Stone’s HAR-TRU surfacing has become the standard in the clay court business. That’s why when people think of tennis courts, they think of green surfaces instead of red ones.
Of course, there are the traditionalists who still prefer the mystery, speed, and sex appeal of the European red clay court. And, Luck Stone has obliged them with a red clay product that has the durability of HAR-TRU, but the feel of European red clay. It also dries faster and causes fewer injuries than traditional red clay.
Unlike many aggregate producers, Luck Stone has become more than a producer of a raw material. The Lee Tennis Courts Products division offers the engineering services, product, and equipment for maintaining tennis courts. They have shown that the aggregate business is more than just crushed stone.