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Lifting the Covers by Alan Mills

Release date: 13th June, 2005
Publisher: Headline Publishing

List Price: £20.00
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Lifting the Covers
By Alan Mills
Headline Publishing price: £14.00 (Saving £6.00 on cover price)

It is one of sport's undeniable facts: the overwhelming majority of match officials have little interest in becoming the focal point of attention, yet it is also correct to say that the competent official is not only well-liked and respected, but his services are eagerly sought by players and fans alike.

Last year, perhaps sport's (then) highest profile official, Pierluigi Collina, wrote in his autobiography, "I don't believe that delusions of grandeur or jealousy√Ėwould lead a normal person to face such sacrifices. These are not the things that drive referees. They are motivated instead by a simple love for sport√Ė" One suspects that Wimbledon referee Alan Mills, who retires at the end of the current championship, would echo Collina's view.

For what feels like decades (because it is) Mills has been the thoroughly decent chap who has had to contend with the often puerile rantings of a succession of precious tennis players, some of whom, such as John McEnroe, clearly used confrontation with an umpire as a method of firing himself up. In this very readable biography, Mills, who occasionally writes in the style of a senior police officer, outlining who among the 128 men in Wimbledon's draw "has a bit of form", acknowledges that McEnroe and others like him knew exactly when to stop pushing officialdom, but by then, their opponents were invariably rattled and distracted.

Mills traces the descent into foul-mouthed confrontation from the start of tennis's Open period which began in 1968. By the late seventies, player tantrums had become an integral, if unfortunate, part of Wimbledon fortnight, a time when umpires were regularly abused, all for £27 a day. As a former player, Alan Mills understood when he became a tennis referee that while rules had to be respected, it was essential to build trust among the playing professionals. It is to his great credit that he managed to do this, although it was no easy task.

He was a player of no mean repute himself, although not one for whom four-letter words were an essential part of his armoury. A late starter who only took the game up at 13, Mills was ranked in the British top 10, at a time when that meant something, between 1957-66 and played in a total of 17 Wimbledon championships, twice reaching the last 16. In 1959, he made tennis history when winning a Davis Cup singles match 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 in 32 minutes.

'Lifting the Covers' is not a book laden with salacious stories or spicy revelations; that is not Alan Mills' style, but he does provide an insight into the machinations of the All-England Club. His description of the order of play committee is a good example. When the old boys who made up this august body arrived, they would demand gin and tonics before examining the playing schedule; more than once, committeemen asked Mills to move top matches onto different courts because they had guests to entertain.

Although he has defused many a potentially explosive situation, during his 22 years as Wimbledon referee, Mills has only twice had to issue the ultimate sanction, once to an American, Jeff Tarango, the tale behind which is particularly revealing, the other to Tim Henman, who was disqualified for smashing a ball in frustration which hit a ball-girl.

Alan Mills and his ubiquitous walkie-talkie will be missed at Wimbledon; let's hope it's not too long before someone of equal stature comes along to keep those precious things in line though.

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