WIMBLEDON, England -- Alan Mills has been the referee at Wimbledon since 1983, overseeing match officials and scheduling, enforcement of the rules, the start and stoppage of play because of weather and light conditions, player discipline, and the like. When he retires after this year's tournament, his 23-year tenure will have been the longest in the history of the oldest event in tennis, played 119 times dating to 1887.
Mills' face is recognized throughout Britain and everywhere Wimbledon is televised around the world. Occasionally he goes on court to calm a rancorous disagreement, more often to inspect the grass to see if it is time to put the covers on the courts, or to take them off, or resume play. Frequently he is seen looking skyward with furrowed brow, trying to determine what the elements have in store, and how that affects the schedule.
Ask Mills what he would like to be said about him at the end of the day, and he replies: "Just that I was fair to every player in the draw, from the No. 1 seed down to the No. 128th player that was accepted into the draw, and treated all the players the same
"Beyond that, all I can say is I have enjoyed every single minute of it. Obviously, when I first started, in 1983, I was sort of wary about what might be ahead of me. I knew in those days that I was going to be tested by certain players, as the new boy on the block. I was a little nervous at first about walking onto one of the main courts to settle a dispute in front of thousands of people, and millions on television, but the longer I did the job, the more confident I got. I think I got respect from the majority of players because I had a tennis background, which I'm sure helped a tremendous amount."
Mills was a top junior player and represented Britain in the Davis Cup three times, winning his first match against an obscure player from Luxembourg, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. He played in the gentlemen's singles at Wimbledon from 1955 through 1969, twice reaching the fourth round. In 1960, he married Jill Rook, whom he had met across the net at a tournament, and they played together 14 times in the mixed doubles at Wimbledon. After his playing career, Mills coached in America and at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club.
He was assistant to referee Fred Hoyles, a gentleman farmer from Lincolnshire, in 1977-82, succeeding him in 1983. Mills did win the Royal Air Force tennis championship twice, but he didn't have a career military background like most of the previous referees in the post-war era: Capt. A.K. Trower (1946-50), Col. Walter John Legg (1951-62), and Capt. Mike Gibson (1963-75).
Capt. Gibson, a mustachioed chap with an upper lip so stiff you could hang curtains from it, used to pride himself on running The Championships "with military crispness." The players used to say his attitude toward rain was, "Play on until the balls float!"
Mills relies on his tennis credentials and a reputation for impeccable character and integrity, to establish respect, whereas some of his predecessors may have counted more on their military titles.
"That is not for me to say, but it was -- how shall I put this? -- slightly different in those days, I would think," said Mills diplomatically. "It was a lot more difficult for players to actually get to the referee if they had grievances. They were almost treated like the naughty schoolboy going in front of the headmaster. And so right from the start I notified the players that my door is always open for any player to come in, because I'd much rather if they had a grievance that they would come in and we could talk it over and sort it out instead of it being discussed in the locker room and all this sort of thing."
When pressed, Mills confirmed what most tennis fans would suspect regarding the marquee players that "the new boy on the block" expected to test him: John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Ivan Lendl. McEnroe -- whose famous 1980 rants at officials of "You cannot be serious" and "You are the pits of the world" may have contributed to Hoyles' decision to retire as referee -- prompted the first confrontation.
"It was a very interesting sort of coincidence, really, because six years previously, I was refereeing my first qualifying event at Roehampton, and the first person who called me out on court then was 18-year-old John McEnroe, the year that he qualified and got through to the semifinal of the singles unseeded," Mills said. He recounted a 1977 incident in which both players complained about an umpire who was making "diabolical decisions." Apparently the fellow thought he was umpiring a doubles match rather than a singles because he called balls that landed in the doubles alley good. Mills removed him.
"But it's just ironical," Mills said. "That was the first time I was called out at Roehampton, and the first time I was called out at Wimbledon was for John on the old Court No. 1. We resolved our differences at that time. We have had one or two meetings on court since then, but I think we both have a certain amount of respect for each other. Let's say he was getting a little more mellow when I took over."
The Roehampton saga reminded me of one of my favorite Wimbledon officiating stories, once told to me by the late Sir John Smyth -- Jackie to his friends. He held many posts at Wimbledon over 65-odd years, starting in 1910, but he gave up being a linesman after an incident in 1929. He was calling a sideline in a third-round ladies' doubles match involving the great Helen Wills. On a warm day, during a seemingly interminable baseline rally, Sir John momentarily dozed off.
"I woke up -- I suppose I was asleep only a matter of seconds -- and I saw Helen Wills at the far end of the court," he recalled. "She was poised on one foot and crashed the ball down between the tramlines (the British term for the doubles alley) for a clean smash. I learned later that it was about the 40th stroke of the rally. But I thought she was serving, so I called out loudly, 'Fault.' "
Mills laughed at the tale, glad that he didn't have to deal with that one. He recalled another infamous episode that was fortunately also before his time. In 1964, a lineswoman named Dorothy Cavis-Brown fell fast asleep on an outside court out by Wimbledon's ivy-covered water tower, and a news photographer snapped a panoramic shot of the embarrassing scene that ran all over the globe.
"Those were the days when play started at 2 o'clock, and the officials had a cocktail party at 12 o'clock, so obviously there was quite a lot of drink consumed," Mills explained "It was a beautiful day, a lot of sunshine. This poor lady just dozed off in the middle of the match, and was made to look very, very silly by the players. She was never seen again."
Presumably, he meant she was never seen again calling a line at Wimbledon, but you never know. That was on Capt. Gibson's watch.
The novelist J.P. Donleavy once wrote that the umpires at Wimbledon "exude rectitude in all directions." Nowadays, officials are authoritative, but less imperious.
"I think over the years, certainly during the period whilst I've been in charge, the standard of officiating has gotten so much better -- mainly due to the fact that the majority of the chair umpires are really professionals at the game, and they're traveling around, week in and week out, they know the players, and there is a certain amount of rapport and respect on both sides now," Mills said. "For that reason as well, I think the behavior on court has improved remarkably. Sitting in the chair, they do give an air of confidence, and they look as if they know what they're doing. They are very confident, very assertive, and the players like that."
Mills just has a book coming out titled "Lifting the Covers." The first chapter, fittingly, is about McEnroe, who 18 months ago gave Mills a copy of his book, titled "You Cannot Be Serious." It is inscribed this way: "To Alan, you have always treated me fairly, even when I didn't deserve it. You are a good man. It's not your fault that you are a referee."
"That was perfect," Mills said, who knows that was not meant as a backhand compliment.
Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.