On Saturday afternoon in Melbourne, news broke of the death of Alan Mills – the long-serving Wimbledon referee who patrolled the grounds between 1983 and 2005.
Only a tiny subset of today’s players would have encountered Mills, mostly such veterans as Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. But many of the commentators counted him a friend – including John McEnroe, the former umpire-baiter supreme
“Alan was a good man,” McEnroe told Telegraph Sport, as he prepared for his first broadcasting shift of the day at the Australian Open. “We were oil and water, I suppose. But I think there’s a certain camaraderie in the tennis world.
“I did feel bad because, you know, I put him in some bad situations that he didn’t want to be in. He was always looking to defuse the situation with me. I appreciated that, even though I pretty much wasn’t listening to him anyway.”
Mills became Wimbledon referee in 1983, which left him dealing with the most unruly generation of players in tennis history. As well as McEnroe, his human headaches included Jimmy Connors and an ageing Ilie Nastase.
The appointment came after Fred Hoyles, a Lincolnshire farmer with little playing experience, had stepped down at the relatively early age of 58. Mills – a skilful racket-wielder who had once defeated Rod Laver – was immediately welcomed by the locker-room as one of their own. He responded by showing the player body more respect and understanding than his immediate predecessors, who had also included the irascible Captain Mike Gibson.
“He was a former player and he wasn’t looking to be in the limelight,” said McEnroe of Mills. “Some umpires, you know, want to be part of the action. I can’t say I blame them in a way, because if you do a good job as an umpire no one knows who you are. But I give him credit, because he always kept his composure.”
Technically, Mills was not an umpire at all, but the man who arrived at courtside when a storm blew up. That phrase could apply literally, when the covers rushed on in those pre-roof days. Or figuratively, when a player suffered an emotional meltdown. In keeping with the 80-20 rule, there was a small group of usual suspects.
Mills once recalled that the 18-year-old McEnroe had been the first man to call him out to a qualifying match – in 1977, when he was still only Hoyles’s assistant. Then, eight years later, McEnroe was also the first man to call him out to a main-draw match. On the plus side, though, neither incident escalated.
“I think we both have a certain amount of respect for each other,” said Mills in 2005. “Let’s say he was getting a little more mellow when I took over.”
A reassuring presence
Perhaps this was true – or perhaps the improvement in McEnroe’s behaviour was a direct result of Mills’s reassuring presence. The evidence would support the latter view. Away from Wimbledon, McEnroe’s most disastrous flare-up would not take place until 1990, when he was defaulted from the Australian Open for two racket smashes and one audible obscenity.
“One default in 15 years isn’t bad,” McEnroe joked on Sunday. “At Wimbledon, the closest I came was when I said ‘You cannot be serious’ [in 1981]. That was before Alan took over.
“My dad always used to say, ‘You don’t need to do this, just go out and play. You’re better than these people. But if you do do it, don’t curse.’ So I learned that early on. That’s where you end up with stuff like ‘You cannot be serious’, ‘Incompetent fool’, ‘You’re the pits of the world.’ They couldn’t do anything about that.
“And then, as time went on, unfortunately for me, I started to go over that line. That’s what happened here. It was thirty-something years ago today. Someone sent me a message like ‘Today was the day you got defaulted.’ I was like, ‘Thank you.’”
McEnroe’s autobiography, Serious, argues that tennis administrators enabled his outbursts because they boosted ticket sales and broadcasting contracts.
While this might have been true for more commercially minded events, Wimbledon in the 1980s was not primarily a revenue machine. The All England Club aimed to maintain a sense of decorum, and Mills personified that ambition.
Later on, the two men would be thrown together on the seniors tour. The incentives were different now, because the organisers encouraged McEnroe to throw tantrums for the benefit of a nostalgic crowd.
Not that Mills always enjoyed the flashbacks. “We used to play at the Albert Hall,” McEnroe explained. “I’d still lose it a little there. It was part of the show. He knew it and I knew it. It was like, ‘You’re not getting paid unless you do this.’ But even so, he would sometimes say, ‘Jesus Christ, just cut me some slack here.’ And I wasn’t that good at it.
“Going back to the main tour, officiating was terrible then. Now it’s a different situation [with electronic line calling]. That always was the dream, but then again, if we had it in my day, maybe no one knows who the hell I am anymore. I guess I gotta look at the bright side.”