AMONG those whose annual seats at Wimbledon are courtesy of BBC television - a vital democratisation of the event, given the price and difficulty of entry - sadness at the death of Dan Maskell, BBC Television's chief tennis commentator for 43 years, will have been rapidly replaced by a fond smile and the echo in their head of the famous verbal blessing he bestowed on the best shots: 'Oh. I say]'
Maskell's catchphrase, an easy shot for television critics and mimics, in fact encapsulates the qualities which made him one of the most famous and finest sports commentators: an art, still barely 50 years old, which he helped to invent and perfect.
His 'Oh, I say]' spoke of an undiminished love for tennis, a possibility of being touched by excellence even after six decades of spectating (he was 83 by the time of the 1991 Wimbledon, his last BBC appearance). It also - applied to each new generation of players - evinced a generosity towards younger, and better rewarded, performers which not all of those former practitioners or coaches who take to the microphone in retirement have been able to achieve. Finally, 'Oh I say]' was part of the asset without which no commentator, a job entailing disembodiment can flourish: a characterful verbal manner.
It may be no coincidence that the three best sporting commentators in broadcasting history - Maskell on tennis, the late John Arlott and the surviving Richie Benaud on cricket - have combined a lack of malice towards each replacement generation of players (nostalgia is the trap for all ageing sports journalists) with a mellifluous regional accent. Hampshire for Arlott, unusually honeyed Australian for Benaud and, for Maskell, the drawl of Edwardian England. His own name came out 'Den Meskell'. Steffi Graff was 'Miss Gra-ah-ph' Ilie Nastase 'Mr Narstaseh'. It was a voice from when tennis was lawn tennis. However, it was never clenched, in the way that a well-bred English accent can sometimes be, but flexible. Part of his strength as a broadcaster was that his voice easily conveyed a sense of occasion, its respectful gravity telegraphing the tension of an epic five-setter.
The favoured metaphor of television critics, for whom Maskell was always worth a paragraph of gently mocking phonetic reproduction, was that he sounded like cream being poured over strawberries. Although a pat thematic connection, the image caught his central vocal properties: smoothness, institutional connection with Wimbledon and fruitiness. (From the same part of the market, another recurrent Maskell image was: 'A peach of a volleh]') It was a gentlemanly accent, for a game retained a residual association with manners, and Maskell was matchingly gentle in his judgements.
'I have a feeling Virginia hasn't been practising her lobbing' he once purred, after Britain's Virginia Wade kept missing the baseline, or sometimes the ball, during a nervy Wimbledon match. A later piece of diplomacy, when a player was surrendering a match without her opponent often needing to hit the ball, was: 'Miss Sabatini's game has everything except perhaps, a reliable service.' The on-court excrescences of the Seventies and Eighties - when fines for swearing and the new offences of 'racket abuse' and 'ball abuse' were introduced into the rules of tennis - rarely drew from Maskell more than a murmured 'Most unfortunate'. (This was the flipside of his other favoured adjectival phrase, for happier passages of matches: 'Most extraordinary.')
Maskell did more than once remark on the rather martial strutting of Boris Becker between points, but, generally, he preferred to maintain a silence at the microphone during departures from past protocol. This left him open to the accusation of cowardice, of fearing to lose the approbation of players. This may have been so, but there was also a sense in his silence, of a genuine perplexity, shared by many tennis fans: that - in John McEnroe in particular, but also Jimmy Connors - there should be the collision of maximum talent and minimum manners. Maskell, the product of a loftier code, felt this deeply.
It will be clear from these examples and others of his favourite phrases - like 'My goodness, what nerve]', for the risky shot from the dangerous position - that Maskell was not celebrated, as Arlott was, for an ability to write vividly original phrases across the air-waves. But nor should it be thought that he traded only in eccentric commonplaces. Though verbally conventional, his reflections were technically acute. He was one of those few former players - again, like Richie Benaud or the footballer Alan Hansen - who, as commentators, can explain to the amateur the foundation of sporting greatness in positional and directional choices. He could pick out on a slow- motion relay how the angle or speed of a player's approach to the net increased their shot options; how the fall of the racket or the rise of the ball was contributing to a server's double-faulting.
He was also unlike most broadcasters - and, indeed, sportsmen - in knowing when to go. In his last few Wimbledons, the cream poured over the strawberries with perhaps just a hint of an obstruction in the jug. The voice perhaps also tended, rather more often, to offer one player's name across the picture of another. This was only a small irritation - no more worrying to fans than Sinatra's veteran tremolo on the higher notes - but he was wise to avoid the further betrayal of his reputation.
It was good that Dan Maskell lived to see one last Wimbledon from the Royal Box in 1992 - he savoured his associations with royalty, having coached the young Princess Anne on Sandringham's courts - and to read the widespread critical perception that the BBC coverage was, that year, somehow lacking and, moreover, lacking him. Because all sports fans are surrogate commentators, annotating the action in their heads, it is hard to be regarded as a great one. Combining enthusiasm, generosity, knowledge - and a voice which sang of summer and of tennis's original noble ambitions for itself - Dan Maskell was.
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