Wimbledon, England — For decades tennis enthusiasts in many parts of the world have accepted Dan Maskell as the final authority on the game; thousands of youngsters have been coached by him; the British Davis Cup team relied on him in the Golden '30s; and BBC Television, for whom he has been a tennis correspondent for over 40 years, has helped him to live in comfort in a large, rambling house in the hills of Surrey. He's been misheard, misunderstood, mistaken. But no one questions his honesty until he admits to being 80 years old.
``They just don't believe it,'' he chuckles. ``I don't believe it myself at times.''
We chatted together on a rainy morning a few months ago beside the famous clock over the main entrance here. And as the irrepressible Englishman spoke with undisguised affection, and some emotion, of his 60 and more years in tennis, it was as though a shaft of sunlight had pressed softly through the rain.
He had just finished his autobiography, ``From Where I Sit,'' and he was in the mood for reminiscence.
``Except for one or two individuals the players in my day were nothing like as fit as players today ... not as physically strong. They were amateurs. They came from offices to tournaments, and many of them could only play on weekends.
``The ball was slower and more sympathetic, and lent itself much more to tactical and strategical play. Now players are tending to develop controlled speed and not to think much about tactics.
Of course there were exceptions even then - like Don Budge.
``I once asked Don how he was going to tackle a certain opponent and he said, `Oh, Dan, I don't have to worry about tactics. All I have to worry about is playing my game, and if my game isn't good enough to beat them, then I ought not to be out there.'
``Another great player was Bill Tilden. I loved being in his company ... the way he talked tennis, and the way he played. I'll never forget Tilden saying to me once, `Great players are great because they can win when they're playing badly.'''
By now Maskell was so carried away he didn't even notice a rain squall driving against the front of our commentary box. Effortlessly the great matches came to mind, and he talked as though the players were down there on the court in front of us. His eyes sparkled, and he smiled with the joy of happy recollection.
``But you know, the man who I think in many ways gave me the greatest pleasure - all round pleasure - was the Australian Rod Laver. His performances may never be achieved again, unless they change the rules. He won the Grand Slam [French, Wimbledon, United States and Australian championships in one year] as an amateur, and then came back eight years later and won it as a professional.
``He was a great player, and a great man ... a lovely man. His temperament was a tremendous part of his success.''
It's always hard to get Maskell to rate players and performances. For 40 years he has been gagged by the demands of strict neutrality on the air. But he finds it hard to resist a challenge that rises like a high lob on his side of the net.
``Ah, McEnroe at his peak - when he beat Jimmy Connors in the 1984 final - that was the greatest display of tennis I've seen in a final on the Centre Court. I emphasize he was not the greatest player I've seen, but that was the greatest tennis I've seen in a final.
``It was tremendous! I mean, the speed at which he played ... the way he covered the court ... he had everything that the all-court player should have. And his error percentage was so low!''
Maskell is too gentle a man to protest much about McEnroe's less admirable performances at Wimbledon, although he readily admitted that he would have supported McEnroe's disqualification on one or two occasions. Instead he swung the conversation across to another ``bad boy'' of tennis, Ilie Nastase.
``There was a near genius!'' said Maskell, purring quietly. ``When he was playing well, and behaving well, you couldn't have had more wonderful tennis. He had everything - touch, finesse, the lot. But whereas earlier his clowning had been quite amusing and never unpleasant, latterly his behavior became impossible.
``In complete contrast, there was Bjorn Borg for whose tennis I had the greatest respect. I admired his temperament and his ability to pull back from nasty situations. And his behavior was beyond reproach.''
Maskell has also described some of the greatest women's matches on the Centre Court, and he made no apologies for mentioning Virginia Wade's triumph in 1977 in front of the Queen in Wimbledon's centenary year as one of the most moving.
`` ... when she won we just couldn't believe it. All I could get out was `She's done it! She's done it!' When I had to set the scene for the presentation I found that I had - not a lump - but a tennis ball in my throat, and the words just wouldn't come out.
``But Martina Navratilova is without question the best woman I've ever seen. I used to think that Alice Marble played the best all-court tennis, and I learned an awful lot about tennis from Helen Wills Moody in the early days. But we've had some wonderful tennis from Martina, especially since she's achieved the high quality and consistency of recent years.''
Maskell makes no attempt to disguise his love of the lawns at Wimbledon and at Queen's Club where he started as a ballboy. He recalls the charms of Forest Hills, and has a soft spot for the Roland Garros Stadium in Paris, where he coached the British Davis Cup team to victory in 1933. But he regards Flushing Meadow, N.Y., as a terribly brash, harsh place - a poor championship venue, with the constant menace of aircraft booming overhead. And he dislikes the scheduling of matches there, especially those that start at 4 p.m. and drift on into the evening under changing light conditions.
``No wonder you have a special affection for this place,'' I said, looking up at the clock nestled in the damp Virginia creeper. ``At the risk of sounding silly, are you looking forward to your 41st consecutive Wimbledon as a broadcaster?''
Dan Maskell smiled warmly, and his eyes lit up like those of a small boy at the start of the summer holidays.
``The day I don't look forward to it, that's the day I'll hand in my notice!''