Time, referee, please? Mills is not the retiring kind

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As Roger Federer and Serena Williams collected their Wimbledon prizes on Centre Court last weekend hardly anybody, spectator or viewer, would have paid much attention to the grey-haired fellow in a suit standing quietly to one side. Which is precisely how Alan Mills OBE likes it. To be an established part of Wimbledon's furniture, yet so little known to the general public, is indication to the tournament's referee for the past 21 years of a job professionally accomplished once again. As they say, the best officials are the ones you don't notice.

Mills, 67, took over in 1983, after six years as an assistant to Fred Hoyles, and is Wimbledon's longest-serving referee. May it continue for a while yet, smiles Mills, scotching the rumours which surface every year that he is about to pack it in. "I am very happy in the job until the All England Club decide they want a change," he said, sipping coffee from a plastic cup in what he calls "The Tarango Room".

This small room, along the corridor from Mills' main operations area, is where players can be taken aside for them to voice any concerns or perhaps to receive a quiet word of advice or reprimand from the Mr Calm of tennis. His new headquarters, like the rest of Wimbledon's Millennium revamp, had not been built when Jeff Tarango famously erupted on the middle Saturday of the 1995 tournament after an argument with the umpire, Bruno Rebeuh, who was later slapped in the face by Tarango's French wife, Benedicte. All of this formed part of Mills' most hectic year, which also included the disqualification of Tim Henman for (accidentally) hitting a ball girl in the face in a doubles match and the default of Murphy Jensen for disappearing before his doubles.

Mills, who lists patience as the prime requirement for his job, terms such matters "difficulties" and has remained on good terms with Tarango, who played doubles at Wimbledon this year. There were a couple of difficulties this time, too: the widely broadcast eruption of Greg Rusedski, and a similar incident involving Henman. "But hardly anybody heard what Henman said, so in that respect Rusedski was a bit unlucky."

Finishing the tournament on time is Mills' overriding aim, which is why he lists his biggest bugbear in a single word - "rain". It was, he concedes, a close-run thing this year after two days of bad weather in the second week. In fact, the most heavily delayed event, the mixed doubles, came to a wonderful conclusion in Sunday-evening sunshine on Centre Court, with Martina Navratilova collecting her 20th title. Job done again, and time for a quiet ciggie outside his office by the backstop to Court 14.

He holds his own firm opinions on such hardy annuals as a roof over Centre Court and whether or not to play on Middle Sunday. "Say it rained three successive days, with a roof we would probably be able to play nine or 10 matches, which would obviously be marquee ones. Other players would not get on, so the programme would be lopsided. On the other hand, millions would be able to watch on TV."

He regards Middle Sunday as his one chance to snatch a break in a fortnight when, for him, 15-hour days are the norm. But when the weather forced Sunday play in 1991 for the first time, it was a huge success in his estimation. "And play on the Sunday would mean we didn't have to stage the fourth round of the men's and women's singles on the Monday, which is the most hectic day of The Championships because of that."

His predecessor, Hoyles, took the brunt of John McEnroe's ire, but Mills had a different view of the American when running the qualifying tournament at Roehampton in his spell as assistant referee, the year McEnroe marched through qualifying and into the semi-finals. "He was complaining about an umpire, so I went out to see for myself. A ball landed between the tramlines and the umpire didn't call it out. John gestured to me as if to say, 'See what I mean?', and I removed the umpire from his chair, which was a rare action to take."

Mills has never sat in one of those chairs, but he has a distinguished record as a former player and this, he feels, helps establish and maintain rapport with the competitors. Born in Stretford, Manchester, he was junior and senior champion of Lancashire by 17, and twice winner of the RAF title as a national serviceman. He twice reached Wimbledon's fourth round, once beating Jaroslav Drobny before losing to Rod Laver, and was a doubles semi-finalist in 1966 with Mark Cox.

He played Davis Cup for Britain between 1959 and 1961, years when there was much British talent to choose from, despite the fact that the reward was £3 a day - "£5 if you bought your own dinner" - and is the holder of a record for the competition which still stands as the only man to win 6-0 6-0 6-0 on his debut.

"It was against Luxembourg in 1959 and my opponent was a chap called Offenheim. I still see him from time to time."

Last Thursday, Mills went back to Wimbledon, where he has been a member for almost 40 years, to play a family doubles on Court 19 with his wife, Jill, his son Barry, visiting from his home in Texas, and six-year-old grandson Jack. He has also played golf with Jack. "He hits the ball consistently 80 to 100 yards." Knowing our luck, Jack will probably play Wimbledon one day as an American.