Come in No 1: Game, set and matchless

This year's Championships will be the last for a great Wimbledon institution
Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHEN some time on Sunday 7 July the final point is played on Wimbledon's No 1 Court, it will be a sad moment for many of us who regard The Championships as the most important fortnight of our sporting and working year. No 1 may lack the grandeur of the Centre Court, but over its 72-year history it has built up its own mystique.

Architecturally it is a strange old thing with a vast West Stand and tiny East, but it has an atmosphere all of its own. In many ways it is a friendlier and more relaxed place than the Centre. As it still has a standing area, it attracts younger, more enthusiastic fans. Often the spectators are very knowledgeable too because No 1 is a place to watch tennis rather than to be seen.

My memories of Court One will always be special for it has marked a series of milestones as my own relationship with Wimbledon has developed. I was first chosen to officiate in 1973 and although I did act as a linesman on both No 1 and Centre from time to time, my early experiences in the umpire's chair were rightly confined to the outer reaches of the All England Club.

In 1980, though, I was promoted to the No 1 Court panel of umpires. I was hardly given a gentle introduction to the "big time" of officiating as my first match featured Ilie Nastase against the American Dick Stockton. Fortunately, "Nasty" was in a good mood that day despite several interruptions for rain. He demonstrated his ability to play with a racket in one hand, an umbrella in the other, and managed to win in five sets.

The following year my first match on Court One was to be Britain's John Lloyd against the Australian Phil Dent. It was scheduled as the second match of the day, so I decided to watch some of the first. I ended up with a ringside seat for one of Court One's most infamous matches, John McEnroe against Tim Gullikson.

In the chair was my fellow Welshman Edward James, a dentist from Llanelli who had encouraged me to become an umpire. Imagine my thoughts when he was told, "You cannot be serious", and that he was the "pits of the world". I sometimes wonder whether it would have made a difference to McEnroe's subsequent behaviour if he had been disqualified during that match. I like to think it would, but to be honest I doubt it. I think John wou- ld have still remained the explosive cocktail of incredible talent and volatile temper that made him so compelling to watch.

In 1982 I umpired McEnroe for the first time, his fourth-round match with fellow American Hank Pfister played, of course, on No 1. As one newspaper reported: "Neither McEnroe nor the big-serving Pfister are exactly the most amiable players around, and quite apart from the one warning apiece they collected, both for ball abuse, there was a great deal of disgruntled chuntering from both sides of the net. If it was not about line calls, it was about the bounces, the wind, or spectators moving when they ought not to have been, or their own shortcomings, and it was as well that umpire David Mercer smiled benevolently in response to most of their reactions."

McEnroe won, I survived and indeed was chosen a few days later to umpire his semi-final against Tim Mayotte. Bad weather meant it, too, was played on Court One, with Mc- Enroe again winning in straight sets before losing to Jimmy Connors in the final.

Of the two, I found Connors the more difficult to umpire. If you had a row with John, it was always face to face. With Jimmy, all sorts of things would go on behind your back. But he did have the ability to inject humour into an argument. In 1984 I took charge of his third-round match on Court One against another American, Marty Davis. Jimmy won comfortably in four sets but during the match he considered he had had a series of bad calls on one particular line. When another close decision went against him, he turned to the linesman in question and screamed, "You stink". When I warned him for verbal abuse, Connors turned to me and asked: "What would you prefer me to say, that he has a bad odour?"

In 1985 I swapped the umpire's chair for a place in BBC Radio's commentary team, but I really arrived in that role two years later. I was covering a match on an outside court when an urgent message came from the producer: "Becker is struggling on Court One - get there quick." The defending champion had been expected to cruise through his second-round match with a little- known Australian, Peter Doohan, so no commentators had been assigned to it. When Doo- han won the first set some rapid rethinking went on. It seemed normal service had resumed when Bec- ker levelled at one set all, and Doo- han was expected to subside quietly. But he did not, returning brilliantly en route to a famous win.

If it was a great day for Doohan, it was memorable one for me too. I experienced the surge of adrenaline that comes when you commentate on a great match. You become totally involved in every point and for once the right words seem to flow. Now that I work for BBC Television I have to remember not to let them flow too much!

Since then I have been lucky enough to cover many compelling contests on Court One: Andrew Castle and Mats Wilander; Chris Evert's remarkable final-set fightback against Laura Golarsa in her last Wimbledon; Sergi Bruguera versus Patrick Rafter; last year's epic quarter-final between Becker and Cedric Pioline. Hopefully, the next fortnight will provide more memorable moments on Court One, but before I leave Wimbledon 1996 for the last time I will sneak a last lingering look at No 1. Mind you, next year there will be a new Court One to look forward to, and it already looks magnificent.

Comments