Tennis: Wimbledon '97: Rain man feels the pressure of no play

Guy Hodgson meets the event referee with an unenviable burden
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The Independent Online
Imagine a picture to convey a wet day in summer. A photographer or artist might see a drop of rain falling from a rose, sports spectators the more prosaic scene of covers on a soggy Lord's. If you had to put a face to the image, however, surely all of us would choose Alan Mills.

His worried frown appearing from behind a backcloth of green canvas, the walkie-talkie seemingly surgically attached to his ear, is a harbinger of gloom. See the Wimbledon referee on your television set and the inclination is to groan: rain is on its way, stand by for McEnroe v Connors (repeat No 103).

"It has been pointed out to me that I might have the most unpopular face in Britain," Mills, who has been hauling them off Centre Court since the early 1980s, said. "It's part of my job to look worried."

This year the frown lines had every reason to be etched deeper into the 61-year-old face. Five days into the Championships and only 94 matches had been completed. There was talk of an over-run or even - sheer blasphemy - Wimbledon having to be abandoned to its fate, marooned in a sea of mud, the players departing to commitments elsewhere. "It was desperate," Mills said. "This has probably been the worst tournament in the 15 years I've been doing it, bearing in mind we had only four clear days in the first 13. Everybody is a bit tired.

"If the rain had continued to fall we'd have gone on as long as we could, with the singles taking priority. When things get really bad you would start to cancel events such as the invitation events, the over-35s doubles, etc."

Fortunately, thanks to the second People's Sunday, the only casualty was the men's doubles, which was reduced from five to three sets in the pre- quarter-final rounds.

Mills might be the referee who takes the players off court but if you think he does it lightly, or with a perverse enjoyment, you have no idea the problems it brings. He is the man who has to re-draw the schedule, to placate players left loitering in the locker-room and to deal with hundreds of inquiries of the "what's going on?" nature.

"The players have been very good," Mills said. "They're desperate to get on court but they know they you are trying your best to accommodate them. You try to be fair but you can't please everyone, and I think they understand that. This year they've been very co-operative."

It was Mills who first put it to the All England Club to stage the original People's Sunday in 1991 - the first time play had taken place on the middle Sunday - and it was Mills who had to weigh the pros with the cons this time. He described the prototype as "probably the most inspiring day I have spent at Wimbledon" and the second was scarcely less uplifting. If you forget the logistics of getting together police, stewards, ball boys, umpires et al for an extra day's work that is.

Centre and No 1 courts were packed on that day in time to see Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman, a contrast to last Thursday when the former went out at the quarter-final stage in front of a half-empty No 1 Court. Mills regretted that but was unsure how to find a remedy.

"It's only when there's bad weather around that there's a problem," he said. "Obviously, people who have planned a day at Wimbledon have geared their movements around a 1pm or 2pm start, and when it's 11am business and other commitments get in the way."

Mills' commitments, once the Championships are safely tucked away for the year, are other tournaments and more wrestling with the weather. And just in case you think Wimbledon is the only place that is plagued by the elements, he can remind you of the Lipton Championships five years ago when a hurricane ransacked the tournament in Florida.

Mills overcame the slight inconvenience of fallen trees and other wind-strewn debris to finish the event on time, commenting a full three months before Wimbledon: "It's all downhill from here."

He probably feels the same this morning.