Profile: Quiet man of authority: Simon O'Hagan meets the Wimbledon referee whose planning skills are tested by the elements

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REFEREES, whatever the sport, like to say that it is when you do not notice them that they are having their best games. They do not always mean this, of course. The ranks of officialdom contain plenty of exhibitionists for whom no opportunity should be missed to blow a whistle, wag a finger, and generally strut the stage if you are to impress upon your audience just how important you are.

At Wimbledon, that most discreetly run of sporting events, such dubious tendencies would be quite out of keeping. Which is why Alan Mills, the tournament's referee, seems as suited to the place as the ivy that clads the Centre Court. And having held the post since 1983, almost as permanent.

Whenever the spotlight falls on Mills, he looks a little uncomfortable. But that is not surprising. If he has to leave the potted-plant tranquility of the referee's office, tucked away under the No 1 court, it is almost invariably because there is trouble, and he is the person who has to sort it out.

This is when the public gets a glimpse of Mills, a shadowy figure as the rain clouds gather, the umbrellas start to go up, and he lurks in a corner of the court, walkie- talkie pressed to his ear, his square, solid features fixed in an expression of dutiful gravity. A difficult but inevitable decision looms . . . 'Ladies and gentlemen, play is suspended'.

The weather, Mills thinks, is the hardest part of the job. 'If you let two minutes of rain on the court you could lose an hour's play later on,' he said. Lost time is what Mills dreads more than anything, with all the disruption it causes to the scheduling, perhaps his biggest responsibility.

But the disappointment of the spectators when denied their tennis is something Mills feels as well. 'I'm well aware of the hardship, almost, that people have gone through, queuing outside all night. But you do have to draw the line with inclement weather.'

And with other things. If it is not the weather that requires Mills to tread softly on to the grass, it is very often because a storm has broken of a figurative kind. No tantrum is complete without Mills turning up, summoned either by player or umpire, an understanding but firm headmaster figure who does everything sotto voce. 'If I'm called to decide about an incident I haven't seen I'll always go on to the court with an open mind,' Mills has said. 'But I'll always hear the umpire's side of the incident first, and then the player's. I'd say that 90 per cent of the time I'll back the umpire. But there have been times when I've had an umpire removed from a match.'

Mills has had to deal with his share of excessive behaviour, notably that of John McEnroe, but ask him for the worst examples and you get a typically judicious response. 'It's very difficult to be specific on something like that and I don't really want to name players. But I think the worst thing is verbal abuse to officials, especially linespeople. Umpires can take care of themselves. They've got the power. And now linespeople have, but quite a few are fairly reticent, and they just take all this abuse.' Though Mills rightly points out that standards of behaviour have improved in recent years.

Abused linespeople, spectators left to mill about in the rain - the lot of those who cannot stand up for themselves seems to strike a chord in Mills, for all his Establishment demeanour. No one was more excited by Middle Sunday three years ago when, after rain had washed out most of the opening week, Mills took the unprecedented step of playing through the first weekend and the tournament went populist. The most incredible day he could remember at Wimbledon, Mills said.

But it is Mills's relationship with the players that is at the heart of his job, and his own playing background is central to his ability to do it. Now 58, Mills is from Lancashire, was county champion as a junior, then RAF champion in the days when the Services provided many of Britain's top players - Bobby Wilson, Tony Pickard, and Bill Knight, for example. Another was John Barrett, now the BBC's senior tennis commentator, who was in the RAF with Mills and was his Davis Cup captain in the late Fifties and early Sixties.

Barrett remembers a player with 'a first-class backhand, a lovely touch, good at the net'. And outwardly very calm. 'He'll tell you himself that he got very nervous inside, but he managed to conceal it,' he said, and that coolness under pressure is apparent today. Max Robertson, writing 20 years later, recalled the 1959 Wimbledon when Jaroslav Drobny, the champion in 1954, 'was beaten in a marathon by that stylist from Great Britain, Alan Mills . . . Mills was playing excellent tennis at this time, and had he been of sterner temperament might well have gone far in the game'. A hint there also of the softer side of Mills that still comes through.

Mills's playing career was at the very least respectable - he played at Wimbledon from 1955 until 1972 - and he made tennis history in 1959 when he won a Davis Cup singles against a Luxemburger 6-0 6-0 6-0. The match lasted 32 minutes. Barrett had a bet with Mills halfway through that he couldn't win every game, 'and I could see him getting more and more nervous towards the end of the match'. At stake was Mills's daily allowance of pounds 5 - a lot in those days, but still a world away from the modern game.

Competition, Mills said, was just as intense then, but there was more camaraderie. Mills - 'gentle, modest, a really likeable guy' according to Barrett - carries the ethos of a world in which the winner doesn't just offer a curt shake of the hand before walking off court alone, but sits down at the bar with the man he has beaten and buys him a ginger beer shandy.

The move into refereeing came through Mills's predecessor Fred Hoyles, who recruited him during a tournament in Torquay in the mid-Seventies. Mills spent from 1977 to 1982 as assistant referee at Wimbledon, before taking over the top post the following year. He is a member of the All England Club, although as a professional referee, employed by Wimbledon for the four weeks leading up to the tournament as well as the fortnight itself, he need not be in theory. Mills referees at other tournaments around the world, and reckons the job occupies him for six to eight months of the year. The rest of the time he coaches. He lives in Weybridge, is married to the former tennis and table tennis player Jill Rook, and they have two grown-up children - a daughter who is a solicitor and a son who is a tennis coach.

For a man charged with ensuring that the rules are applied, there is a feeling that Mills's essential niceness may on occasions have stopped him being as tough as he might have been. One example occurred during the Sweden- United States Davis Cup final of 1984, at which Jimmy Connors was as abusive to an umpire as only he could be. Many felt Connors should have been thrown out, but Mills was inclined to accept an apology from the American and merely fine him, conscious that he was under stress because of the imminent arrival of his second child.

Then, only last year at Wimbledon, the umpire Jeremy Shales wanted to default Jim Courier for his abusive behaviour, but when Mills stepped in the American found he still had a place in the tournament. One unnamed umpire was dismayed enough to say, 'It's ridiculous. They complain when we're not tough enough and then one of our umpires decides to take strong action and he doesn't get supported.' Mills stands by his decision. 'I don't think I'm lenient on the players,' he said.

The public, too, have a go at Mills, for whom dealing with letters of complaint is part of his daily routine. Usually people have been offended by an obscenity, picked up by a television microphone, or are questioning how much white - or how little - there is in a player's shirt. The dress code is part of Mills's brief, and his office keeps a supply of pure white kit, to be distributed to players whose own does not get past Wimbledon's 'predominantly white' rule.

The job, though, involves a huge amount of diplomacy, and as Barrett says, the requirements to do it successfully are considerable. 'You must have first-hand experience of the game, to understand what the players are going through. You also need to be a good organiser, and almost have the wisdom of Job in deciding the rival claims of players who will want to play their games on a certain court at a certain time or whatever. So you've got to be understanding and knowledgeable.

'And you've also got to be a bit of a bully when it's necessary. But above all you've got to be even- handed. If the players feel you're favouring anybody, your reputation goes down immediately and they'll never trust you again. I think those are the main qualities, and I would say Alan had the lot.' The day we see Alan Mills waving his arms about is the day the Centre Court comes tumbling down.