Maskell: the dream team man: John Roberts echoes the tennis world's tributes to Dan Maskell, who died yesterday

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DAN MASKELL, who died yesterday, aged 84, did not lend his voice to Wimbledon this year. So Wimbledon, in the form of the Centre Court spectators, expressed the sentiments of the nation to Dan when the retired BBC commentator stepped into the royal box for a presentation on the opening day of the championships.

The gift was a silver salver engraved with the landmarks of Maskell's career: ballboy at Queen's Club, from the age of 15; world professional champion, at 19; British professional champion 16 times; the All England Club's first professional; coach to the British Davis Cup squad; rehabilitation officer with the Royal Air Force; official coach to the Lawn Tennis Association; BBC commentator for 43 years. Maskell would have settled for two words: team man.

Though his was the most distinctive voice in the sport, Maskell always regarded himself as part of a group effort rather than an individualist, and this endearered him to his colleagues. Nobody was more devoted to tennis, a point which would have been obvious to the millions who listened to the measured words he put to the pictures. As Arthur Ashe, the 1975 Wimbledon singles champion, once said: 'If you had been in a long sleep and suddenly woke up and heard Dan Maskell broadcasting from Wimbledon, you'd know all was well with the world.'

When I interviewed Maskell shortly before Wimbledon this year, he was trying hard to decline numerous requests, though the telephone hardly stopped ringing at his home in Dorking, Surrey. He was prepared to give the odd lecture and supervise a few coaching sessions, but more important was to spend time with his wife, Kay, and their grandchildren.

Maskell knew how precious time could be. His benign nature had survived two tragedies. He lost his only son, Jay, in an air crash, and his first wife, Connie, died in a drowning accident.

Tennis was still dear to him. Even after attending more than 60 Wimbledons, he was as enthusiastic as ever, looking forward to taking his seat in the enclosure reserved for members at the All England Club. His one regret was that he was no longer able to play the game.

'It's ironic,' he said. 'People write to me and say, 'Dear Mr Maskell, I've had tennis elbow for six months, I'm sure you can help me'. And I write back and say, 'I've had mine for nearly 11 years'. I've had all the best orthopaedic treatment in the world, and also I've been to a faith healer. I try to play golf twice a week to keep fit, but I miss the delights of playing on the grass at Wimbledon with my old pals. It's rather sad. One of the things I miss, millionaires can't buy.'

A meticulous researcher, Maskell often was to be seen working quietly in the press room, refreshing his memory on latest form and the slightest change in a player's service action, or whether a virtually unknown baseliner was hitting two-handed backhands.

He marvelled at performers such as Bill Tilden and Henri Cochet in the 1920s, yet remained unstinting in his admiration for the current champions. He regarded Martina Navratilova as the greatest woman player, and singled out Rod Laver as the greatest champion, emphasising: 'I am talking of champions, as against mere winners of Wimbledon. To have done what Laver did as an amateur, winning the Grand Slam, and then to come back, when he'd been in the wilderness for eight or nine years in pro tennis, and do it all over again, was wonderful.'

Laver embodied Maskell's ideal. 'I've always said that a great champion has responsibilites as well as advantages and privileges,' he said. 'I think Laver was the perfect champion, in so far as he had a record that that was unbelievable over a long period of years - like Jack Hobbs, at cricket, and Nicklaus, at golf - and he was a great, great man: unassuming, modest, presentable in every way; the very acme of a great sportsman. All his fellow players thought the world of him.'

Qualities similar to those were being expressed in the tributes to Maskell yesterday. 'He was the doyen of Grand Slam television commentators,' Arthur Ashe said, 'even though the BBC has that distinctively understated approach to broadcasting. It affected us all. The standard we seek is Dan Maskell's, and you go from there.'

Virginia Wade, the last Briton to win a Wimbledon singles title, in 1977, said: 'There was only one Dan. He symbolised the game for the whole country. The greatest asset he had, apart from being a thoroughly nice man, was his enthusiasm about everything. He was never negative about anyone.'

John Barrett, the former British Davis Cup player, who frequently shared BBC commentary boxes with Maskell and also collaborated in his autobiography, From Where I Sit, said: 'To sum Dan up, it's the respect that he held for the game and all its participants. That's what shone through his commentaries.'

Barrett first knew Maskell when, as a 17-year-old, he went to him for coaching. 'I found him to be absolutely delightful,' he said. 'He was so interested to find what was worrying you about your game, and treated everybody as an individual. People have said he never produced great players. This was unfair. He helped Fred Perry and others to be great players.'

John Curry, the Wimbledon chairman, said: 'Dan was a consummate professional and was respected and loved the world over for his honest, informative and knowledgeable commentary. Dan made a lifelong contribution to Wimbledon.'

Sir Michael Checkland, the BBC director-general, said: 'Dan Maskell was one of the small group of outstanding braodcasters who set the highest standards and inspired affection from listeners and viewers.'

Bud Collins, of the American NBC network, commented: 'Everyone I know believes three things about Dan: he invented television, invented tennis and invented Wimbledon.'

My favourite story is of the time Collins persuaded his director to take a snatch of Maskell's commentary. 'You're now going to listen to the great Dan Maskell of the BBC,' Collins told listeners. The ball was in play for a lengthy rally, and Maskell characteristically let the viewers watch the action uninterrupted.

'When is the guy going to say something?' the director kept asking Collins, a frantic note in his voice. Still there was no sound except the pit-pat of the ball. Finally, the point was won.

'Perfect timing on that backhand,' Maskell observed.

(Photograph omitted)

Obituary, page 27