Interview: John Frame’s 25p bus ride from Craiglockhart to Wimbledon

Former Wimbledon umpire ''John Frame. Picture: Neil Hanna
Former Wimbledon umpire ''John Frame. Picture: Neil Hanna
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It is that time of year. Start of Wimbledon, start of the school holidays, and many a parent perhaps wishes they could have their own step-laddered high chair from which to look down disdainfully on the latest face-flushed, spittle-spatting strop and 
eyeroll wearily.

Despite the painfully obvious ready-made title, the recent fad for funky 
tennis documentaries has, thus far, not ventured into the mysterious inner world of the tennis umpire, those blazered bastions of order who are as part of the fabric of British summertime as Sue Barker’s jug of Pimm’s.

Which is the documentary world’s loss, as a fascinating hour in the company of John Frame, Scottish veteran of 25 Wimbledons and chair umpire in seven finals, reveals. He did strike back, though with polite good humour, as one Australian player was to discover, but first we must go back to a beginning which can’t help but, with your 
indulgence, prompt the response: “You cannot be serious”.

It was 1972, a year before Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the notorious “Battle of the Sexes” and a time of turmoil in the sport with many of the top male players banned from Wimbledon, including reigning champion John 
Newcombe, the great Rod Laver and Arthur Ashe, due to the ITF’s dispute with World Championship Tennis.

Meanwhile, in Craiglockhart, the EH14 of Scottish tennis (as nobody calls it), a young Frame, in his fifth year at high school, had just lost in a badminton tournament when a Tannoy call went out appealing for someone to umpire the final of the Scottish Women’s championship tennis.

“They were offering 25p, which just so happened to be my exact bus fare home, so I went for it,” he explained when we met at the spanking new Newbattle High School, or “Community Campus”, where, now 63, he works as a history teacher.

“I hadn’t even really played tennis before, well just messed around and hit a few balls, but the guy gave me a scorecard, notes on the scoring system and rule book and off I went. I probably made thousands of mistakes.”

Little did Frame know that a free bus ride home to Penicuik would lead to countless air miles to officiate at tennis’ biggest events and sit in judgment on some of the richest and most famous stars in the sporting galaxy.

After joining the East of Scotland Umpires Association – the second match on which he officiated involved a teenage Judy Murray – Frame was given a gig at the Dewar Cup, a women’s professional event at Meadowbank in 1973. Remarkably, a year 
later he was at Wimbledon.

“I applied and got a letter back saying I was in,” he recalls. “I think because I was alive and under 65!

“It was amazing to be there but it was all so different back then, not very organised. There was no uniform, you just had to wear your own shirt and tie and play didn’t start until 2pm. You couldn’t even get into the place until 1pm.

“The only thing I remember from my first match was that it was on Court Five and went to 22-20 in the final set, I was out there for bloody hours. The officials are changed around now but, in those days, you did the whole match.”

Little did Frame know that he was about to be swept up in the revolutionary racket-swinging 70s, with the emergence of some of the greatest stars in the sport’s history, whose ruthless professionalism had no time for the complacent amateurism which had been endemic.

“They weren’t prepared to put up with the poor quality of officiating and they were absolutely right.

“As a result myself and few other younger guys got fast-tracked past the old seniority system, started to get invites abroad and things moved to be a bit more professional.

“I owe a lot to guys like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase…”

At this point your interviewer blunders in and suggests Bjorn Borg as an addition to the stellar roll call before being corrected: “No, Borg never earned me any money. He was too quiet. It was the other ones, the guys who kicked up a fuss, they forced the authorities to take the officiating side of things more seriously.”

Of course the greater opportunities that came along in tennis presented Frame with a problem over his day job teaching in Penicuik. But, in the early 1980s, as the umpiring invites flowed in, more fortune put him on the path to his first and enduring sporting love – Heart of Midlothian FC.

“Yes I ended up working for Wallace Mercer, which was more stressful than umpiring McEnroe, I can tell you,” said Frame with a wry smile.

A diehard Jambo, Frame had become involved in the battle between Mercer and Kenny Waugh, both now deceased, for control of Hearts.

“I was on the other side, but once 
Wallace had won, his deputy chairman Pilmar Smith suggested he gave me a job and he reluctantly agreed.”

So what was this job? “Good question,” is Frame’s smiling reply.

It certainly wouldn’t be a job title which could easily, in the old days, have been put on a passport. Frame helped behind the scenes at Tynecastle liaising with local schools, assisting young players get job placements, acted as club translator with his French and German skills, was club historian and wrote the match programme.

The post, though, allowed him to eventually spend 22 weeks of the year on the tennis circuit and, having spent time on the board during the Chris Robinson regime in the late 1990s, he remains a season ticket 
holder at Tynecastle to this day.

“Wallace was a difficult guy to work for but I will say this for him, he never took advantage of people and he liked to help. Now, this ‘help’ would sometimes have the opposite effect but he would make the effort.

“He was the first celebrity chairman in Scottish football and I have two abiding memories of him as regards tennis. The first was in 1989 when Connors and McEnroe came to play the Scottish Open at Craiglockhart and I umpired them in the final. Of course, Mercer had his own box in the front row and, as I was in the tunnel with the players about to come out, never one to miss a photo opportunity, he emerged before us and shook my hand under the guise of ‘wishing me luck’. The other was before my first major singles final, Martina Navratilova against Zina Garrison in 1990 when Martina won her record ninth title. Before it, Wallace had given a press interview stressing the fact that I was only able to do the umpiring courtesy of his good wishes.”

Frame would go on to umpire three men’s finals, in 1992, 1996 and his swansong year of 1999, as well as doubles finals but still rates that 1989 showdown between the American megastars and bitter rivals as a career high.

“To have umpired Connors v 
McEnroe anywhere would be incredible but to have done it in my home town, where I personally knew half the crowd was special.”

You could imagine that a conversation with an umpire whose career coincided with McEnroe’s might transform into something approaching a therapy session but Frame, who came close to defaulting “Super Brat” in Edinburgh for that most tennis of crimes “audible obscenities” is made of sterner stuff. Screams of “chalk flew up” were not about to faze this hardened veteran of the state school chalkface.

“He was not an easy man and, despite this new TV persona he has I doubt he has changed,” said Frame, who was net cord judge when McEnroe beat 
Connors in the 1984 Wimbledon final in what the closehand witness described as a “virtually flawless” performance.

“I was lucky in that the first two times I got McEnroe it was in matches after he’d got himself in bother, that was always the best time to get him as he’d be quiet,” he continued.

“The other memory of him I have was when he was playing an event at Wembley Arena on the carpet against Guy Forget. He had lost the first set and clearly wasn’t happy but I had got a line judge who had made a really bad call removed from the court so I’d earned some Brownie points with him. But things continued badly in the second set and he started to kick off. He came back to the chair and was shouting at me and then was just looking up at me waiting for me to respond and I made the decision to just say nothing and the moment passed. Somebody asked me after why I hadn’t had a word with 
him and I said ‘because that’s what he wanted me to do, he was trying to pick an argument’.”

Of other stars he dealt with over the years, Frame describes Boris Becker as “a strange man” but had a lot of time for Ivan Lendl, who he found to be a lot warmer than his dour persona, as has perhaps been recognised during his time as Andy Murray’s coach.

“He liked to test you on the rules though,” recalled Frame of the Czech. “If it was an umpire he hadn’t had before, he’d find a way to test out that knowledge and if you didn’t have that answer he would look to make sure you didn’t umpire him again.”

Frame’s biggest Wimbledon flashpoint actually came with another, lesser-known American, Tim Mayotte, who had a total meltdown in his 1989 quarter-final with defending champion Stefan Edberg. “It was on the nine o’clock news and everything,” says Frame with a shake of the head.

It was 11-11 in a second set tiebreak when an Edberg return was called long by a hesitant line judge after Mayotte had already hit his reply, which went out. Frame overruled the call against Edberg, costing Mayotte the point. That provoked a sustained barrage of abuse from the American which may even have made McEnroe balk.

“But the TV replays showed I was right, thankfully,” stressed Frame. “I actually met Edberg at an event a few weeks later and he said he would have been happy to have played a let. But my feeling was, why should Stefan have been punished for being a nice guy.”

That keen eye, sense of fair play and calm authority led to Frame getting the women’s final the following year. Two years later he was handed his first men’s final and, as well as having the best seat in the house for an absolute classic, he later perhaps gained an 
early indicator of a potential flourishing romance between two players who would go on to have that rarest of things, a long-lived tennis marriage.

“Andre Agassi v Goran Ivanisevic: before it you just had a feeling it was going to be a great match. The best returner in the game against one of the best serves. And it was fantastic, went to five sets, but it’s a good job there weren’t these betting apps on phones back then because I remember looking down at the last change of ends, Ivanisevic was 5-6 down and I could see his hands were shaking uncontrollably and I just knew he was gone. He went out and served two consecutive double faults though, Goran being Goran, he followed that with two aces. But Agassi won it and I just remember feeling mentally drained straight after the match.

“It was the first year the chair umpires got to go to the Champions’ Ball at The Savoy, which was a fabulous experience. Agassi made a short speech and it was [future wife] Steffi Graf who was ladies champion, having beaten Monica Seles. Agassi said ‘I’m so pleased Steffi won, because I don’t like to hear grunting at the dinner table’.”

Agassi also featured in Frame’s final match as an umpire in a Grand Slam final, when he lost to Pete Sampras at Wimbledon, ending a career which saw him also serve many years at the French Open but only one Australian (“too hot for me”) and two US Opens (“I love New York but it’s not a place to work, too brash, too humid”).

Frame loved Davis Cup ties, even the one between Argentina and Colombia which had machine gun-toting security ringing the court, and three Olympic Games. He has remained involved supervising and training officials, refereeing tournaments and is on the board of Tennis Scotland.

He confesses, however, that he is not an avid watcher and, perhaps surprisingly did not even watch Andy Murray’s historic first Wimbledon triumph in 2013.

“To be honest the extent of my tennis watching on the TV is to see who the umpire is and that’s it,” he reveals. “I love still being involved but I think like with a lot of people when something is a job it’s difficult to then view it for entertainment.

“At Wimbledon they have seats reserved for the officials but I guarantee you they are only used by the ones who are there for the first time. I remember my first year sitting on Centre Court when I had free time and thinking ‘this is amazing’ but it soon wears off.

“I was up at Craiglockhart when that Murray final was on but I was busy doing stuff, could hear the screams and whoops, and of course I was delighted he won. In my time down there, after Joyce Hume and Winnie Shaw, not a single Scot even played at Wimbledon for donkey’s years. If you’d told me a Scot would one day win it I’d have thought 
you’d need locking up! But football is love, tennis a job. A good job, mind.”

And a job he was good at, as even some of the cantankerous dummy spitters he dealt with over a quarter-of-a-century had to accept at times.

“One of my favourite stories involves the great Aussie doubles player Todd Woodbridge,” recounts Frame. “I was umpiring him during a singles match at Queen’s and it was one of those oppressively hot 30-degree London days and he was not having a good day at all.

“At one point he screamed at me ‘are you a proper umpire, have you ever umpired at this level before?’ and I was thinking ‘yes son, I umpired your mixed doubles final at Wimbledon last year’ but I didn’t say anything.

“Sure enough, a few weeks later and I was umpiring the men’s doubles final and he was in it with his partner Mark Woodforde.

“As he came to the net for the coin toss he sheepishly said ‘you’re the guy I asked if you’d ever umpired a proper match before’ to which I replied ‘yes and I didn’t answer you. I knew I’d be here today but wasn’t sure if you would be’.

“It was one of those funny things where our paths just kept crossing in matches for the rest of the summer and then, later in the year, I was doing a Davis Cup tie in Australia which was being played in Adelaide. I’d had a couple of days in Sydney, was in my seat on the plane when who should appear to take the one next to me but Todd Woodbridge. He just looked at me and said ‘aw, you’re kidding me?’”

Which, it must be said, for a 
fine gentleman such as John Frame, was far more appropriate than “you cannot be serious”.