It’s exactly thirty years since the eminent Dan Maskell passed away yet his remarkable legend still lives on. Best known for his many shrewd and perceptive commentaries and stock remarks of, “Oh I say!” used when an outstanding shot was admired, “quite extraordinary” described an ecstatic reaction and “a dream of a backhand” reflected his unfading appreciation of the game and all part of his recognized repartee. His popular presence during the tournament became an integral part of Wimbledon as are strawberries and cream. For sixty-two years from 1926 until his retirement at the end of 1991, he has never missed a single day’s play at the Championships.
Regarded as the ‘Voice of Wimbledon’ for his broadcasting expertise and started broadcasting in 1949 when he joined Max Robertson in Wimbledon’s tiny ‘wireless box’ as a ‘summeriser’ which soon led to him joining the commentary team and delivering his many insightful and thoughtful commentaries in gentle, undulating tones elevating him to one of BBC’s best known commentators. Some way there were times when listening to him commenting on BBC TV, you could close your eyes and simply imagine the goings on from just listening to Dan’s broadcast.
Over the years Dan became a hugely popular figure in the world of tennis and once declared he was lucky to view tennis ‘from the best seat in the house’ adding that his many poignant silent pauses should be regarded as a basic rule, “a second’s silence is worth a minute’s talk”.
Dan Maskell was born in 1908 in Fulham, SW London and as a young boy his passion for all sports soon prevailed. In 1923, a few weeks before his fifteenth birthday he applied to work as a paid ball boy at Queen’s Club for the princely sum of ten shillings a week (about 50p in today’s currency) which increased to 15 shillings after two years! It was during this employment that enabled Maskell to rub shoulders with top players from the world of lawn tennis, rackets and real tennis including a variety eminent club members. Moreover, he learnt to play all three of these racket sports but it was his close proximity to tennis that helped ignite his passion for the sport.
Also this during the era when players and club members actually paid ball boys but what appealed to Maskell more than anything was being able to listen in on coaches teaching tennis which led him to become a top teaching professional at Queen’s Club. Thus began a love affair with lawn tennis that never faded. Sadly the opportunity to play competitive tennis as an amateur was bizarrely barred because he was considered a professional having earned money from the sport as a ball boy at Queen’s Club
From this modest start his career progressed in 1924 to junior professional and five years later was offered the position of teaching professional at the All England Club, the first person to be employed by the club as a teaching professional and where he spent the next 26 years.
It was during this period that Dan visited the States many times, sometimes competing in professional tennis championships (during the Prohibition era) and other times working as a coach. In 1933 he was asked to coach the British Davis Cup team which earned him great acclaim after helping to guide the team to its first Davis Cup success since 1912. That year the team consisted of such luminaries as Fred Perry, Bunny Austin and Pat Hughes..
During the war years Maskell gained immense satisfaction when asked to work as the RAF’s first rehabilitation Officer at Torquey and Loughborough hospitals. It was here he dedicated time and effort to helping restore the mobility and confidence of many of the war’s wounded and disabled aircrew encouraging them to play tennis despite their disabilities. In appreciation of his dedication to helping wounded aircrew in 1953 he received the OBE and that year became the first professional to be made an honorary member of the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
It could be said that this is what inspired the Maskell family to create the Dan Maskell Tennis Trust formed in 1997 to raise funds to help those with disabilities to play tennis. So far this has included two Grand Slam winners, Gordon Reid and Alfie Hewitt for whom the Trust financially helped them path their way to become successful top wheelchair tennis players.
A new phrase of Maskell’s career started in 1955 when he joined the LTA as their training manager. This involved travelling to all corners of the UK delivering lectures, showing films and giving tennis demonstrations whole encouraging the growth of tennis in post war years. Until he retirement in 1973, he was in charge of training coaches and promoting the game nationwide and devoted himself to transforming coaching and developing methods at the Lawn Tennis Association.
In one of his early training sessions held in Cambridge, a handful of juniors were invited to take part which also included former Wimbledon semi-finalist, Roger Taylor who recalls being taught to serve by Maskell. “After hitting a few serves he told us all to put down our rackets and start throwing balls to the other side of the court with our non-serving arm. I easily out threw all the other boys and it was then that Dan recognized I was ambidextrous something one had pointed out to me as being ambidextrous was in those days not recognized.” From then onwards he played tennis left handed. Interestingly, Roger who is currently ranked 6 in the world in the over eighties age group, now serves with his right handed but switches rackets and plays out points with his left hand to protect an injured left shoulder.
During the era as a top coach for the LTA, Maskell trained also many of the top players including former Wimbledon champions Angela Mortimer, Ann Jones and Virginia Wade. His other claim to fame was being approached by the AELTC to personally coach members of the Royal family which included Prince Charles, Prince Andrew, Princess Anne, and Princess Alexandra. This involved him driving the Buckingham Palace and teaching the Royal children on the private tennis court in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. He always maintained that Princess Anne had the ability to become a good all round player had she devoted more time to the sport but in those days, horses were her passion and sadly tennis didn’t feature very highly. In 1982 Maskell was conferred a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for services to tennis by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11.
Maskell was the BBC first tennis commentator for the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 when tennis resumed as an Olympic sport after being dropped from the competition after the 1924 Games. His final broadcasting assignment before retiring in 1991 was covering the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Men’s Singles final featuring Michael Stich and Boris Becker when Stich broke Becker’s streak of three successive Wimbledon singles titles by beating his compatriot in three straight sets, 64. 76. 64.
Another great fan of Dan Maskell was the late Arthur Ashe who won the Wimbledon finals in 1993 after beating Jimmy Connors. Sadly, the following year due to illness, Ashe was unable to play Wimbledon but kept in touch though the BBC TV and afterwards said, “as soon as I heard Dan’s voice I knew all was well with the world”.
Written by April Tod