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Remembering Barry MacKay: The Voice Of Tennis

Barry MacKay

MacKay© Tennis Channel

On Friday, the tennis community lost of one of its most beloved personalities. Barry MacKay, regarded as ‘The Voice Of Tennis,’ passed away in San Francisco. He was 76.

MacKay’s involvement in tennis touched many areas of the game and his contributions have benefited several generations. The NCAA singles champion at the University of Michigan in 1957, MacKay reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 1959, played on five U.S. Davis Cup teams, helped bring professional tennis to Northern California, and was a household name for his work in the commentary booth for over 30 years.

Industry legend Donald Dell, a close friend to MacKay for more than 60 years, reflected on MacKay’s peak form, recalling a surprising run on clay in 1960. “He was ranked No. 1 in America in 1960 and 1961,” Dell told ATPWorldTour.com. “I remember he won the Italian Open in 1960 and came into the French Open as the No. 1 seed on clay, and he was not a good clay-courter. He was much better on grass, so that was a remarkable achievement.”

Rod Laver, considered by many to be the greatest to ever play the game, looked up to MacKay when he turned professional in 1963. Speaking with ATPWorldTour.com, Laver reminisced about a journey to one of his first professional events, revealing a memorable car ride with MacKay en route to an event in Albany, New York.

“One time, when we were going to Albany, Barry was driving a station wagon. I had just turned professional,” said Laver. “It was snowing and we were sliding. He said, ‘Welcome to the pro game!’ The car was going sideways down the freeway. He relished the thought of getting me to understand the professional ranks and it was a great introduction to the game. He was always a big part of it.

“Barry was a wonderful individual and a great player. We played some memorable matches. He gave me a lot of knowledge about the pro game when I was coming up those ranks. It was sad to hear of his passing. We had some good times and he had some wonderful stories. He’s going to be a heavy loss for all of us because he did a lot for the game.”

When describing MacKay’s character, Dell said, “The nicest thing about Barry is that he was so warm and friendly to everyone. The guy was in tennis for over 50 years and you never heard anyone criticise him or say negative things about him. He was really liked and admired by all, which is very unique in the tennis world, as it’s very competitive. I think Barry had an infectious friendliness and warmth that people picked up on. People would come up to him and ask, ‘How’s The Bear?’ He was just loved by everyone in tennis, which is why you’re seeing such a reaction to his passing.”

Current Tennis Channel analyst Leif Shiras disclosed a similar anecdote. Shiras, who began working alongside MacKay in the 1990s for Prime Network and later Fox Sports Net, shared with ATPWorldTour.com, “When we working, there were so many people who approached him, because he represented the voice of tennis. He was so popular among all age groups. It was fun to see. If the attention ever got too great, like when he was walking to his car, he’d say, ‘Leif, smile and keep on walking.’ He always tried to give a little something to everyone.”

Adds Shiras' colleague and ATP Board Member Justin Gimelstob, “"Barry was one of the most generous and kind people in tennis,” Gimelstob told ATPWorldTour.com. “He truly loved the sport and treated everyone in it like they were part of his extended family. His positive energy was infectious. He was one of a kind, I will miss him. The sport lost one of their own, and he will never be forgotten.”

MacKay’s love for the game came through in his broadcasts; he provided fans with a soothing, welcoming voice to narrate matches as they unfolded. Shiras believes, “The best thing he had was his pipes. They were magical pipes, with a beautiful tone and a rich texture. It was a wonderful gift as a broadcaster to have that. He was a guy of the Midwest. He was from Ohio and I’m from Milwaukee, so we were sort of on the same page of respecting the game and the players who played it, and calling things as you see it.

“He had a few trademarks. If a ball landed close to the line, he would always whisper in the middle of the rally, ‘it’s in!’ Or if the ball hit the net, he would whisper with great surprise, ‘net cord!’ His wrap up at the end of matches was distinctive too. ‘And there it is!’ He delivered it in that rich tone, which was a nice way to end a match. It was simple, elegant and universally loved.”

Dell admired MacKay’s ability to make any situation positive and how he could always keep his cool. “A funny thing happened when Barry and I were in London a few years ago and we decided to go to the World Cup. We were flying to Marseille. HBO sent a car for us and we went to the airport. We walked to the counter to get on the plane to Marseille. The lady asked to see our passports. Barry looked at me and I looked at him and neither one of us had ours. We travel around the world a lot but we looked like a couple of dummies!

“We asked the driver to race back to the hotel and told him to go to our two rooms where the passports were. Thankfully he did and we made the flight. We got to the stadium after missing the first half of the match, so our hosts were not too happy. There were a lot of stories like that with Barry. He had such a great sense of humour. He never got mad or frustrated with people. It was fun to be around him.” 
 
For Shiras, MacKay was not only a friend, but a mentor. Looking back, Shiras said, “Barry was very humble about his place in the game. He stood pretty tall. Not only was he literally tall, but he could pick up a big station because he was the voice of tennis for many years for people who were fans of the game. He had a lot of admirers. It was a great voice he gave to the game, not only in pitch and tone, but also with how he called the game. We’re going to miss him.”

Ken Solomon, Tennis Channel CEO, added, “Tennis Channel mourns the passing of our beloved friend and colleague Barry MacKay, a great man of tennis and an even greater man.  Our hearts and thoughts are with his family and friends today, and we are saddened by the loss of this great champion, leader, personality and barnstorming tennis legend.”

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