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Wimbledon: Players, pundits and personalities

Simon Mahon

BBC Genome

John Barrett (prepared for all weather conditions in shorts and a jumper), Virginia Wade, Dan Maskell and Gerald Williams in 1989

It is a year of anniversaries for the BBC and Wimbledon this year. 2017 marks 80 years of TV and 90 years of radio coverage by the BBC. It is also 50 years since the first time the championships were shown in colour.

As the tournament begins, the Genome blog looks at some radio and TV commentators who have brought the action into our homes over many decades and some of the players who have figured heavily in the BBC Genome listings.  

Dan Maskell outside the Centre Court commentary box, 1958

Early radio commentaries were delivered by the extravagantly named Captain Henry Blythe Thornhill (Teddy) Wakelam. Wakelam was a rugby player and had commentated on the first Rugby Union match on the BBC earlier that year. But the man who went on to be the voice of tennis had a much stronger association with the sport: tennis coach Dan Maskell made his debut commentating on Wimbledon in 1949. In an interview he gave for Radio Times ahead of the 1956 championships Maskell spoke of the need to know players personally to cover the sport. Maskell covered the tournament until 1991 and is reported never to have missed a single day's play at the championships from 1929 until his retirement.

While Maskell specialised in and was considered the voice of the sport, another stalwart - who has provided Wimbledon coverage for more than 30 years - is legendary commentator Barry Davies. Davies’ early BBC listings are predominately for football and hockey and there are hundreds of listings for Davies on Match of The Day. However, BBC Genome also shows a long association with Wimbledon, on which he has provided commentary since 1983. Davies is still going strong and is at Wimbledon for the BBC again this year.

As well as Wimbledon Barry Davies also commentated on 12 Summer Olympics

Early Radio Times magazines showed a keen interest in the tournament, despite there only being a handful of broadcasts for the first years of coverage. As Wimbledon grew to dominate the schedules it was nearly always given a front cover. From the 1970s onwards, the tennis stars of the day were increasingly featured. 

One of the best players of her generation - and having won the French Open in 1976 - Sue Barker was on the Radio Times front cover ahead of Wimbledon 1977. The 1977 event, won by Virginia Wade, saw the centenary of the championships and the listings show that there was a special programme to look back at the “Action, anecdotes, delight, despair, fashion, fun” from the preceding 100 years.

Sue Barker moved into broadcasting following her retirement from playing and after spending some time fronting Sky’s coverage she presented Wimbledon on the BBC from 1993 onwards. From this starting point Barker has become a mainstay of BBC listings - presenting a wide range of programmes including A Question of Sport, Olympics and even a Royal Wedding.

Serve up a blog about Wimbledon and not mention John McEnroe? You Cannot be Serious! McEnroe is another personality who has made the move from player to broadcaster. Magnificent play and a volatile on-court temperament brought him much attention during his playing career. He was on the Radio Times cover in 1979 and in reaching five consecutive Wimbledon finals at the start of the 80s McEnroe featured in many BBC billings just like this. After McEnroe retired from the sport (later to become a regular feature of BBC tennis coverage), players such as Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras took centre stage on Centre Court in the late 1980s and the 1990s.  

Steffi Graf at the 1993 Wimbledon Championships

With schedules coming out a week in advance, Radio Times listings have focused on the famous players of the day. BBC Genome shows the preeminent players of the 21st Century have been Roger Federer and the Williams sisters. Venus and Serena have won 12 times since the turn of the century, competing against each other in four of those finals. The second day of the championship is traditionally referred to as Ladies Day with the defending female champion playing her first round match. Last year’s champion will not be able to do that this year however with 2016 winner Serena heavily pregnant and therefore missing the tournament.

Serena (left) celebrating beating sister Venus (right) in the 2003 singles final

Ninety years after first broadcasting from Wimbledon the partnership continues: last year the BBC and the All England Club announced an extension to their broadcast agreement until 2024. Who knows who'll be bringing us the coverage then - perhaps some of the players of today will be tomorrow's radio and TV commentators. 

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