Tennis Technology

Don't just take your members' word for it - take a look for yourself. After a rain, are birds bathing in puddles on your hard courts? Have areas behind the baseline worn smooth enough for day court slides? Finally, is your landscaping crew grooming grass and weeds thriving through earthquake-sized cracks? While a court may seem indestructible, every three to seven years, it needs a face-lift.

Spring's just around the comer. Isn't it time to turn unused eyesores into revitalized activity centers? If your hard court needs to be resurfaced, an acrylic court system may answer your participation problems. For both private and public facilities, courts constructed from asphalt or concrete make up the largest percentage of tennis courts in the U.S. And of those courts, most players are sprinting to a ball on some type of acrylic surfacing system. While acrylic surfaces have long been popular because of their relatively inexpensive and easy-to-maintain appearance, the virtually "maintenance free" benefits have lulled many tennis court owners and managers into thinking acrylic surface installation is very simple - nothing more than a few coats of paint.

On the contrary, acrylic systems are high-performance surfaces requiring considerable installation. If you're considering an acrylic surface for your courts, here are some answers to the most frequently asked questions about acrylic systems.

Why Have an Acrylic Surface?

Before breaking down the application system, let's review four benefits of having an acrylic surface.

From a  Player's Perspective:

For Maintenance Ease:

What Makes up an Acrylic Surface System?

What's above the asphalt or concrete is either a non-cushion or cushion system, depending if the system includes any resilient material. The key ingredient for acrylic surface systems, however, is a water-based suspension or "binder" that consists of acrylic (and sometimes a variety of other substances including styrene butadiene, vinyl acetate, and latex). There are also color pigments, mineral fillers, fibers, extenders, additives and preservatives. High quality surfaces are all acrylic or at least contain a very high percentage of acrylic.

NONCUSHION: When it comes to non-cushion systems (at least three coats, but seldom more than five), this "filler" or "base" application has to be thick to fill in surface voids and defects. This base also serves as the primary bond between the pavement and subsequent layers of the surface system.

Following the base course are texture and color courses. A texture course consists of an acrylic binder mixed with sand. This gritty, thinner layer that determines the speed of the court surface. The last non- cushion layer "seals" and gives the court its color.

CUSHION: For a softer, slower court, then add rubber granules into the acrylic binder. To really feel any effect, you'll need as many as five or ten layers after the base course. Check with the manufacture for granule sizes because it's easy to manipulate the speed to your desired specs. Then, of course, apply the texture, color and playing line applications.

What are the complications with Application?

While an acrylic surface system seems simple in theory, any experienced contractor will tell you a myriad of things can go wrong if you're not careful. To begin with, several potential construction, material and environmental-related complications need to be addressed. For example, if an asphalt pavement is not sufficiently cured (chemically hardened) prior to the base layer, the surface may never properly bond to the pavement. Another pitfall is that acrylic surfaces are generally not compatible with concrete pavement. The concrete must be treated with a specialized adhesion promoter prior to surfacing to prevent the surface from peeling away.

Since all acrylic surface systems are combined with water during the mixing process, proper application depends on favorable weather. On particularly hot days, the water in the surface mixture can evaporate too quickly while it's being spread, resulting in streaking and unevenness. On cold days, acrylic mixtures gob up, making it difficult to work evenly over pavement. Check out a long-range weather forecast. As a rule, the best temperatures for the entire process are between 50 and 140 degrees, with no risk that pavement temperatures will exceed either limit.

A court surface applied when the humidity is particularly high might take days to properly cure. And if it rains on a surface application before it has cured, the surface can become so damaged that scraping and re-applying is the only option. If moisture is trapped between layers, the surface system will literally fall apart during play.

There's more. If a surface is installed during a particularly windy period, peeling can occur if subsequent layers cover wandering dirt or leaves.

Surfacing an indoor court can be particularly tricky because a building's environment is closed to the outdoors' natural dryer, the sun. On a warm, sunny day a court usually takes four to six hours to properly cure. Indoors, however, the lack of sun and air circulation hampers water evaporation and line application upwards of 24 to 36 hours. To expedite the process, turn on fans and crank up air conditioning and/or heating units before you start to aid in the curing process.

Is an Acrylic Surface Really Maintenance-Free?

Many tennis court owners and managers convince themselves that the "low maintenance" requirements of an acrylic surface system means that no maintenance is required. This management approach is the surest way to waste money. There are three basic enemies of acrylic court surfaces: water, sun and dirt. The better you maintain a court's surface, the longer it will last. Unfortunately, the more you use a court, the faster it wears out.

Outdoor court surface should last between three and five years. Indoor court surfaces should be resurfaced every two years (depending on use.) It's important to realize that when you resurface a court you are merely restoring the courts texture and color layers. Unless the pavement is replaced, it's not necessary to reapply the entire surface system from bottom to top, especially if it is a cushioned surface.

The next time you are on the court, remember that what just looks like color is really a high performance sports surfacing system. It is the product of years of formulation by chemists in the lab and refinement by contractors in the field. Most important it ain't paint!  

by Andrew R. Lavallee, ASLA