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Serving from the Sidelines
He has returned McEnroe’s barbs and got hit by Rusedski’s rockets. Now after 29 years of officiating at Wimbledon, he has been awarded the MBE

                                                      By Nishtha Shukla

GAME, SET, MATCH : Mhajan(centre) with family

He is best recognised as the turbaned Indian on the world’s leading tennis courts. The Wimbledon linesman who has had a bumpy but interesting ride on the courts was awarded the Member of the British Empire (MBE) this year. Raghbir Singh Mhajan was honoured with the order in November this year in recognition of his contribution to the sport in his 29 years of service.

An Indian who was born and brought up in Kenya, Mhajan now resides in the UK. But in 1972, Mhajan settled down at Andley Roadat Ealing, London, to become the first  Indian to

officiate at the world’s best tennis lawns. Mhajan learnt his tennis at Nairobi and began his career with the Kenyan Lawn Tennis Association. He would even get Indian players to Kenya to play tournaments and has always been actively involved in supporting Indian players. Mhajan took to the game keenly and fought against all odds as an Indian to make his mark in the tennis hall of fame.

Once he moved to Ealing, making inroads into Wimbledon became easier for Mhajan. Soon he was introduced to the British Tennis Umpires’ Association and started officiating matches all over the UK and abroad. Once into the game, recognition came for the excellent work he did. He started gaining popularity as the turbaned linesman and got due recognition in foreign lands. “When I first started at Wimbledon, no one had seen a Sikh before. As I did a good job, I was proud to be wearing a turban. The players and the public also looked forward to seeing my coloured turbans,” he says.

Registered with the All England Lawn Tennis Association, he officiated at Wimbledon for 29 years. So when the MBE recognition came this year, it was well deserved. “A lot of people have been saying that I should have been given an MBE. All my friends were overjoyed,” he said, on being given the MBE. Apart from the joy that came with the honour, the Sikh was thrilled about meeting the Queen. “It is the best ceremony that you can go through,” he said.

"When the recognition came this year, after 29 years of officiating at Wimbledon, it was well deserved. It is the best ceremony that you can go through."

Mhajan’s little affair with John McEnroe’s on-court tantrum in 1981 is his best-known controversy. The American player was furious with Mhajan when the latter ruled against him and partner Peter Fleming in a doubles match involving Vijay and Anand Amritraj on the other side of the net. To which, Mhajan’s innocent response was, “I am an Indian, but I come from Kenya.” Interestingly, when Mhajan finally retired last year, McEnroe said, “I want to tell you that you were fantastic at your job. You would never budge.” Yet another accident of his career was the 132 mph serve that hit him three years back. The Greg Rusedski serve blacked him out. Rusedski apologised immediately and sent Mhajan a box of cookies the next day.

He might have had a ball on the courts, but being the first turbaned line judge couldn’t have been easy for Mhajan. He faced prejudice and “jealousy” at various points of his career. But he continued with great work that got him further recognition, working his way up to judge at Centre Court. Mhajan has also played mixed doubles with Nirupama Mankad, mother of Davis Cupper Harsh Mankad. Another first in his career was that he was the first male coach to be allowed at the prestigious Lorreto Convent Girls School in Nairobi.

Not only has Mhajan been at the forefront of tennis in the UK he has also been servicing Indian tennis in recent times. He has supported Indian players playing in the UK, and regularly invites Indian players to his house and makes them feel at home. His Tennis Centre in England is said to be open for India’s junior as well as senior players. But talking about Indian players aspiring to international tennis, Mhajan says, “They are not strong mentally, and, therefore, lose from winning positions.”

Having retired from active Wimbledon, his hopes for the future are bright. At his What a Racket Club that he runs with his son in Noel Road, Acton, they nurture younger talent. “We’ve already produced three youngsters who are playing for Middlesex and we hope we can produce some more good players.”

Mhajan will always be recognised for his contribution to Wimbledon, and with the award, his name has been etched into the portals of the tennis hall of fame.