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Graham Liddle was hit in the head by Nick Kyrgios and booted off court by John McEnroe

When Graham Liddle started his tennis career at Wimbledon, Ted Heath was Prime Minister and Ilie Nastase was the scourge of tennis officials everywhere.

It was 1972, and John McEnroe was still in high school in New York, but—as Liddle would learn firsthand—another Center Court enfant terrible was on the way.

Brushing up on both, and the many highlights, such as being a linesman for Andy Murray’s historic 2013 final, are among the hallmarks of a remarkable 50-year spell that will end at the All England Club over the next two weeks.

Graham Liddle bows after 50 years of Wimbledon official with many memories

Graham Liddle bows after 50 years of Wimbledon official with many memories

Like the vast majority of civil servants, he has combined an outside career with a job as a linesman and referee, first in local government and for the last two decades as a bus driver.

While there have been concerns about player behavior standards this year, Liddle believes things have improved overall. Certainly since the innocent days of the 1970s, it was comparable to the Wild West, with the influx of big money and personalities like Nastase and Jimmy Connnors.

“The problem was that there was no code of conduct at the time and the authorities didn’t have the power to take action,” said Liddle, 72, of Hemel Hempstead.

‘It has actually become a lot better now because there are more rules in black and white. In the 1970s you didn’t have any weapons at your disposal, you were quite relieved to make it through the competition.’

When Liddle started his tennis career at Wimbledon, Ted Heath was Prime Minister

When Liddle started his tennis career at Wimbledon, Ted Heath was Prime Minister

He did a lot as a referee in that decade, and it wasn’t long before his path crossed with the famously temperamental Nastase.

“He was probably the hardest. In 1976 I refereed the old John Player tournament in Nottingham in the semi-final against Stan Smith.

Whenever Stan was ready to serve, Ilie was deliberately messing around. I told him you had to be ready to receive or else I might consider these to be delaying tactics, but we didn’t have the power to apply time violations.

“The crowd was all pro Smith and against Nastase and his antics. He slammed his racket into the grass, which would now be considered a serious offense as it damages the surface. All you could do was try to keep calm and appeal to his better character.’

Five years later, he peaked at McEnroe, in the summer of his infamous ‘You can’t be serious!’ eruption at Wimbledon.

Liddle experienced highs and lows - one of the highs being his time as a linesman for Andy Murray's historic overall win in 2013 (above)

Liddle experienced highs and lows – one of the highs being his time as a linesman for Andy Murray’s historic overall win in 2013 (above)

Liddle sitting in the referee's chair during one of Ilie Nastase's matches at Wimbledon

Liddle sitting in the referee’s chair during one of Ilie Nastase’s matches at Wimbledon

“I did one of his games in 1981 as what we called a ‘court captain’. I was on the side of the track, but not really part of the line crew. He noticed me for some reason and asked the referee what I was doing there.

“He didn’t seem to get me out of his mind and made more comments about my presence in court. I was eventually asked to leave which was annoying but there wasn’t much I could do.

“But I wouldn’t say anyone lost it with me. You should try to be cool if they look you in the face, you are told not to react. Others like Borg, Federer and Nadal, never a problem, real gentlemen.

“Connors can be tough too, but you have to say the audience loved them and loved them when they exploded. As a crew we never talked about it beforehand, but for those matches you could feel a little more tension and adrenaline.

“I had an incident with Nick Kyrgios when he tried to hit the ball back to the ballkid, misdirected it and it hit me on the forehead. It surprised me, but was never a standard situation. He actually apologized and asked me if I was okay.”

There have also been moments of slapstick, such as when he fell off the umpire’s chair while leading a clay court game on the lower Futures circuit.

He said the problem with Jimmy Connors was that there was

He said the problem with Jimmy Connors was that there was “no code of conduct.”

“The technique is that you have to keep your eye on the mark you are inspecting on clay when the player asks you to check. I got off the chair and stared at it, lost my balance and fell off, the whole court thought it was hilarious.”

His personal highlight was the heady afternoon in 2013, when he took the lead for Murray who became the first British male champion in 77 years at Wimbledon.

‘It was a sweltering day and the atmosphere was great. I’m always afraid of making a mistake, of course you hope Andy would win but would never be biased. Andy was incredibly focused that day. Some days he can be a little distracted, but this time he was so constricted. The crowd was great, it was electric. I never thought he would lose that day and I will always remember that.”

Tennis has of course changed a lot in its time and so has the world of line judging, now much more professional. One example is that his level of civil servant is getting £182 a day this year for his work at Wimbledon, plus allowances for things like dry cleaning.

Liddle (right) cut a relaxed figure as he called the line for Jimmy Connor's (left) match

Liddle (right) cut a relaxed figure as he called the line for Jimmy Connor’s (left) match

Just like in football, the development of technology has brought with it the existing pressures. Errors made when judging hairline decisions, often involving a tennis ball landing at speeds over 100 mph, are immediately flagged on large screens.

“Last week at Queen’s I got what we call ‘Hawkeyed’ – I got some close misses, but you have to try to erase it and you try not to react whatever the screen shows. Your heart is always a little in your mouth when it’s referred. The umpire will flag you after every match, but it won’t necessarily be counted against you if you missed a very close one.”

He happily accepts the rough with the smooth of the modern world, but is more concerned about the trend of major tournaments – such as the Australian and US Opens – using technology to replace linesmen altogether.

In 1981 he peaked at McEnroe, in the summer of his infamous 'You can't be serious!'  eruption at Wimbledon

In 1981 he peaked at McEnroe, in the summer of his infamous ‘You can’t be serious!’ eruption at Wimbledon

“I’m concerned about how it’s going to affect recruitment at the lower levels. People join because their ultimate goal is to work on the big events. If that is taken away, many people will leave, affecting things like club and county level or the lowest rungs of the circuit.

“It might save money for big tournaments, but the base will suffer. I hope Wimbledon and the French don’t do it. It doesn’t bother me, but it can be harmful.’

He will always be able to look back on a phenomenally long career with the sport’s essential supporting cast.

“I’m going to miss the camaraderie and the friends I’ve made very much. My eyes are still good, but my legs are really hurting now, so I think it’s time to finish it off,” said Liddle, who will receive a long-service award from the Lawn Tennis Association this weekend.

‘Only a small percentage can live on this. I’ve met so many interesting people, including players, but there’s also been aviation pilots, actors, navies, people from all walks of life, it was a great thing to do.”

Liddle also remembers the time Nick Kyrgios accidentally hit him on the forehead with a ball

Liddle also remembers the time Nick Kyrgios accidentally hit him on the forehead with a ball

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