Tim Henman disqualified at Wimbledon
From Alan Mills’ autobiography, Lifting the covers: (Alan Mills was Wimbledon tournament referee from 1982 to 2005).
There were three major incidents that year, all of them utterly extraordinary, dramatic and traumatic in their own way. The first involved a young Tim Henman, then playing in only his second Wimbledon. I had known Tim since he was a young teenager when I was refereeing junior tournaments in Surrey. Although he was largely unknown to the British public at this time, he was a player of outstanding promise and those who had watched his development, with the help of Jim Slater and David Lloyd, were convinced that Britain had finally managed to produce a player of truly world-class potential – the best since Perry, many claimed. In my association with him up to that time, I had found Henman to be impeccably courteous, even-tempered and good-natured character – the last person on a tennis court you would expect to have to throw the book at for a breach of the rules.
Henman, who had lost in the second round of the singles to the defending champion Sampras in straight sets earlier in the day, was involved in a doubles match out on Court 14, now situated outside the new broadcasters’ complex between Centre Court and the new Court 1. He was partnering his fellow Britton Jeremy Bates against Swede Henrik Holm and a live-wire character called Jeff Tarango who I would get to know all too well by the end of that fortnight.
It was late on Wednesday evening in the first week and we were all winding down in the office after a relatively smooth, uneventful day when I received a call on my walkie-talkie from one of the supervisors tell me to hurry out to the court because they had a possible default situation on their hands.
I had heard similar claims in the past, but on this occasion, the tone of the supervisor’s voice led me to believe that something very serious was afoot. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what might have happened, although I did harbour what soon proved to be some utterly groundless suspicions. Marching briskly through the crowds outside Centre Court, I tried to work out which of the four players was the most likely offender and, based on their disciplinary records, my prime suspect was Tarango, whom you might describe as one of the more emotional players on the circuit at that time. Second favourite was Jeremy Bates, a player of geat intensity and determination, whose feelings might very occasionally spill over in his desperation to succeed. But as for Henman and Holm – a well-mannered Home Counties boy and a Swede for heaven’s sake – I didn’t give them a thought.
I entered the court from the corner, and as I made my way up to the tramlines, some of the crowd pleaded with me to be lenient on the culprit.
“He didn’t mean to do it… it was just an accident… go easy on him…”
As I approached the chair to talk to the Australian umpire Wayne McKewen, I saw Henman deep in conversation with him, and my first thought was that the young Briton must be pleading someone else’s case on their behalf, or was perhaps just giving his version of events. As the umpire began to explain what had happened it dawned on me fairly quickly that I was going to make one of the most controversial decisions in the history of the Championships. My heart sank and my pulse raced, and no matter what way I looked at it, the rules were perfectly clear – I was going to have to throw Tim Henman out of the Championships – the first man to be defaulted since the Open era began in 1968. I then listened to Henman’s explanation and to his great credit he didn’t try to excuse himself or underplay what he had done. He seemed as shaken as anyone by events and he hung his head in embarrassment and his voice croaked a little as he talked me through his unfortunate moment of madness.
The match had reached a crucial juncture in a tiebreaker when a shot from one of Henman’s opponents had struck the tape on the net and dropped over the other side. In his anger Henman took a ball from his pocket and looked up to smash it somewhere. Careful to avoid the other players and the line officials, he took aim at a spot on the other side of the court – this all happened in a split second – and then left fly. At that moment, a young ballgirl called Caroline sprung from her haunches to collect the ball sitting at the foot of the net and was hit on the side of the face. She burst into tears, more in shock than agony but once she has recovered she pleaded with me not to take any action and, bless her hearrt, even said she was the one who had been at fault. But my mind was made up: the rules state quite clearly that a player has to be in control of his emotions at all times and that if he strikes a ball in anger and it hits someone, then it is a cut-and-dried default situation. If the ballgirl had been in the wrong place when she was struck, then there might have been a bit of room for doubt, but she hadn’t, and with great reluctance I told Henman that he – and Bates – were out. Henman was superb: he comforted the girl as best he could, accepted my decision like a man and apologised to everyone involved for his uncharacteristic rush of blood to the head.
The uproar was every bit as tumultuous as I had expected. This was a front-page story (headlines: ‘Tantrum Tim’) and was slotted in the evening news bulletins on television somewhere between earthquakes and ministerial resignations. The members’ lounge at the club was buzzing with comment and I was forced to bite my lip when I heard that one character had blustered: ‘What the devil does Mills think he is doing defaulting the son of a member of the club? It’s an outrage. Tarango’s contribution to the flood of opinion I felt was also worth ignoring – he claimed the ballgirl could have been killed and that, had he been the offender, he would have been thrown out of tennis altogether.
Henman himself couldn’t have been more understanding. He posed for pictures with the ballgirl the following day, giving her a kiss and a bouquet of flowers, and he never once moaned about his fate.