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Tending to Grass, and to Grief, on a Tennis Court in Iowa

Mark Kuhn is hunched over, one knee on the ground, pulling dandelions from an otherwise immaculate lawn. With a small, serrated blade, he carefully carves tiny leaves from the turf, extracting as much of their roots as he can reach, and places them in a plastic container beside him. Dandelions, I learn, are as prolific as they are stubborn.

Three days earlier and some 4,000 miles away in my native England, Novak Djokovic had once again held the Wimbledon trophy aloft on the most revered court in all of tennis. Meanwhile, I was driving the 1,926 miles from my adopted home of Oakland, Calif., to be here, on this tennis court, on a farm in Northern Iowa, standing next to Mark and his weed-filled ice cream tub.

I kick off my shoes and stand barefoot like a child, taking in the Midwestern summer. The grass on the soles of my feet is warm and welcoming, and the morning sun undulates on the corrugated metal of the Kuhn family’s sheds and silos. I feel like I’ve been here before.

My memories of early childhood are mostly vague: a muted palette of inconsistency and confusion, lacking defined edges or chronology. But recollections of summers, which were spent in rural Cambridgeshire with my grandparents, are bathed in the palomino gold of the August sun on fields as far as the eye could see, and in the warmth of the love I felt there. Every afternoon, a curtain of decapitated dandelion-seed fluff, churned up by nearby combine harvesters, would fill the lattice patio window, on its way to offering seemingly infinite new beginnings.

It was here I discovered tennis — albeit watching, not playing. I was a resolutely unathletic child, one of my more enduring traits. In 1997, most British households had only five television channels, two of which ran wall-to-wall Wimbledon coverage for two full weeks, every year. I would normally have been at school in late June, but it was clear to one of my more perceptive teachers — who knew that I’d struggled in recent years with my grandfather’s sudden death, and with my father’s decision to leave to start a new family — that I was deeply unhappy at home and would be better off beginning my summer break early.

From the comfort and loving safety of Nan’s sofa, I quickly became invested in the progress of Tim Henman, who made it to the quarterfinals. At first, it was because there was simply nothing else on TV, and the whiff of British success at Wimbledon tends to send my country into an inexplicably contagious fever. Ultimately though, it was Henman’s dogged determination that kept me hooked. An unlikely hero, his resolve was an unexpected ember of inspiration for a lost kid who was desperately grasping for something solid to hang on to.

A breeze flutters through the six-feet-tall cornstalks. Mark tells me the corn grows so quickly this time of year that you can actually hear it. I’m not sure if he’s serious, but I furtively prick an ear, just in case. The lament of a mourning dove is accompanied by the shrill urgency of a red-winged blackbird flitting between field and power line. At ground level I hear the occasional crunch of tires on the loose gravel road beyond the farm’s perimeter. Necks craned, passers-by peer for a better view of the All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club, as spectacular as it is incongruous, and a plume of dust forms in their curious wake.

Exactly 20 years ago, Mark, together with his wife Denise and their two sons, Mason and Alex, began the laborious and experimental undertaking of building a grass tennis court on their farm on the outskirts of Charles City, Iowa. It took more than a year to finish.

It was the realization of a dream the reluctant third-generation farmer had held since 1962, having become enamored of Wimbledon two years previously when he heard a BBC broadcast on his grandfather’s shortwave radio. Twelve years old and absent-mindedly doing his chores, Mark noticed the cattle feedlot he was standing in was about the size of a regulation tennis court. But it wasn’t until the sudden death of a close friend, some 40 years later, that he was galvanized to try to make his far-fetched daydream a reality.

Mark plays on the court occasionally, but his main source of joy lies in the rituals of preparing it for others to enjoy. The All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club — a nod to Wimbledon’s home at the All England Lawn Tennis Club — is open to whoever wants to drop Mark a line to request a reservation.

The week following the 2022 Wimbledon Championships, Mark is preparing to host Madison Keys, a one-time U.S. Open finalist, for an exhibition tournament benefiting her Kindness Wins Foundation.

Just after sunrise, using a greens mower, Mark meticulously crops one millimeter off the top of the grass in four directions, giving the surface its distinctive stripes. Then it’s time for his favorite task: marking up the court. After aligning the edges with string, he slowly paints the tramlines — one careful step at a time, heel to toe — with a brilliant white titanium dioxide compound. The net is then dropped and pulled drum-tight, until it measures exactly three feet in the middle.

Mark learned these scrupulous and time-consuming methods on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, in 2012, when, at the age of 62, he served as a grounds-staff intern. (It wasn’t until he wrote them a third letter that they let him come.)

In 2016, Mark was honored and ecstatic to be invited back to the All England Club to be an honorary court attendant. Four days after he returned home to Iowa, his younger son, Alex, took his own life. He was 34.

By the time pandemic-induced house arrest rolled around in 2020, I was already standing in the ruins of what had been a particularly severe and unrelenting fallow period, punctuated by the suicide of a dear friend. Though his death didn’t come as a surprise exactly, it didn’t make the ferocity of those first weeks any less painful.

Drained of purpose and, what’s worse, my baseline optimism, I had retreated into a silent despair when I came across Mark’s story. Wimbledon had been canceled that year, but the BBC still had tennis-related airtime to fill, and they used part of it to show a short and bittersweet film about a man in Iowa who had built a grass tennis court. I felt both Mark’s joy and his pain as if it were my own, so I wrote him a letter — a real letter, with ink and paper. I asked if I could come and take pictures some time. Mostly, though, I just wanted him to know that I thought what he had done was special, and that I was deeply sorry for the loss of Alex.

On the day of my eventual arrival, although we were strangers, Mark and I were unflinching in our conversations about the parts of us for which words don’t come easily. Perhaps our respective wounds — the loss of a child, a father-shaped longing, the distinctive timbre suicide adds to grief — had found familiar counterparts. The absences we both feel are intrinsically unfillable, but maybe just recognizing them in each other helped soften their sharp edges.

With every story, every clue, a picture of Alex slowly emerged. The word “integrity” seems to follow him around. In a photograph in the office, I notice in Alex’s eyes what I thought was a characteristic unique to Mark’s — the way the light catches their cerulean irises. You can see almost all the way through, like a fleck of sunlight on the bottom of a swimming pool.

“I have something to show you,” Mark says, his warm face delighted and boyish as he flashes one of his conspiratorial smiles. We head to the kitchen and Mark takes a small baggy of what looks like a single leaf of arugula from the freezer. Placing it delicately on the quartz countertop, he giddily relays the story of the time the Centre Court grounds staff thought they were finished for the day, but, nervously, Mark pointed out a dandelion they had all missed. He had managed to out-perfect the perfectionists, and the evidence was flown across the Atlantic to live in the Kuhn family freezer. He gazes at it with reverence: his little green miracle in a Ziploc bag.

A Union Jack lightly flaps above the court’s southwest corner as “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung by the assembled tennis pros, their high school senior opponents, the extended Kuhn family and the 400-strong crowd. The tournament’s umpire, smartly dressed in a striped blazer, is perched above the court, eyes narrowed. Her seat is an old wooden step ladder with the non-rocking half of a rocking chair attached, crowned by a souvenir Wimbledon umbrella that has seen better days. Ball kids from the local high school in Charles City have been enlisted, corralled by Maggie, a junior who is showing her pigs tomorrow morning at the Floyd County Fair. The atmosphere is jubilant, but I’m acutely aware of how complicated today must be for the Kuhns, because it’s also the sixth anniversary of Alex’s death.

The ache of their loss is never far from my mind here. Overwhelmed at one point, I retreat to one of the sheds for a moment to gather myself. Under the dim, functional lighting in the vaulted tin ceiling, the polite clapping and rhythmic clock of a ball on racket strings soothes me from the other side of the rust-barnacled walls, and I wonder about the flotsam and jetsam that surrounds me.

Wooden rackets, empty Pimm’s bottles and decomposing tennis shoes. Unfamiliar tools, old photographs and a campaign sign for one of Mark’s stints in the Iowa House of Representatives. I count seven lawn mowers. I lose count of indiscriminately strewn tennis balls. I run my fingers along the decaying tailgate of his father’s old Chevy truck. Haphazard fragments form an atlas of my new friend.

A coffee mug emblazoned with “#1 Dad” hangs above rolls of the court’s original bentgrass turf, which Mark and Alex seeded together just after Labor Day in 2002. On the workbench, next to the jigsaw used to cut the 628 fence pickets that now enclose the court, sits a spray bottle of Roundup, the same chemical Mark used to kill that bentgrass when he was swallowed by grief in the weeks following the loss of his boy. Before his death, Alex had written a list of improvements he wanted to make to the court. Changing it to perennial ryegrass — the same species used on Wimbledon’s Centre Court — was at the top of that list. Mark made it so. The renovation gave him a sense of purpose and renewal during those dark days.

At dusk, the hum of field crickets and cicadas fades out, and the katydids take over for the night shift. As the spectators disperse from the temporary bleachers, a diaphanous duvet of mist — moisture emitted by the 770 acres of surrounding Kuhn corn — settles over the fields. The almost-full moon rises majestically over the southeastern horizon, shrinking as it climbs the lilac sky.

The next day I come to say goodbye. Mark is puttering about, busying himself as usual. I accompany him while he completes a few administrative tasks: We drive to the bank, mail a check, set up a Venmo account. We look out at the grass. On this court, I’ve learned, there is love in every blade. Turning to the car to leave, I see the white globe of a dandelion pappus float past the driver’s window and gently land by the front wheel.

On Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, Mark will close the All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club’s iron gates for the season. Before the summer insects fall silent in October, he will dutifully carry out repairs and reseed the baselines, worn down to the dirt by rubber-soled feet.

Come January, the Iowa snow will drift over the fence pickets, and the court, entombed in ice, will lay dormant until spring. Then, with sacred devotion and characteristic precision, Mark Kuhn’s rituals will begin once again.

Rachael Wright is a British photographer who lives in Oakland. You can follow her work on Instagram.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

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