David Mercer: The Perfect Gentleman

David Mercer reporting on the Toss at the 2018 Women’s Boat Race. Photo courtesy of Harald Joergens.

2 September 2020

By Robert Treharne Jones

Robert Treharne Jones remembers David Mercer, tennis and Boat Race commentator.

David Mercer, who has died at the age of 70, achieved worldwide fame as a tennis commentator but was well-known in the rowing fraternity for his 30-year involvement with the Boat Races.

David was born in Swansea, the son of a local solicitor, and was sent away to boarding school before spending the sixth form at Dynevor School, Swansea, where he was a contemporary of Rowan Williams. David was already a very competent tennis player, and he became Welsh junior doubles champion in 1968.

Mercer started his umpiring career after acknowledged that he would never become a top senior player.

Having qualified in law at Nottingham University, where he learned to row, David returned to Swansea to join his father’s partnership. But the acknowledgment that he was not going to make it to the top as a player took him into umpiring in 1973, and he rose through the ranks to take charge of the 1984 men’s singles final at Wimbledon final between John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.

David Mercer with John McEnroe (left) and Jimmy Connors before the 1984 Wimbledon final. Photo: @Wimbledon.

In 1979, he stood as the Conservative candidate for the Swansea West constituency in the general election where, though unsuccessful, he nevertheless reduced the Labour majority from 4836 to just 401 votes. The same year he put his speaking skills to a different effect that would ultimately change his life, winning a BBC Wales commentators competition, and becoming a full-time broadcaster five years later.

Tennis was the sport in which he made his mark, on and off the court, and he was appointed as BBC tennis correspondent in 1990. He remains the only person to have umpired a Wimbledon men’s singles final and also commentated on them for both radio and television. His knowledge of racquet sports meant that he also commentated on badminton at the Olympics and at the Commonwealth Games.

David’s Boat Race career started in 1991, when he was recruited to the Radio 5 commentary team and spent the first few years on the terrace of the Black Lion pub, between Hammersmith Bridge and Chiswick Eyot. From his vantage point he would cover that segment of the race as well as get some vox pop from the (usually) boisterous crowd.

BBC commentators David Mercer, the article writer and Tom Sutton, with Boat Race commentary legend John Snagge (seated).

Three years later he became the anchor commentator on the launch following the race, and this was his regular vantage point for the next several years, until a combination of budget cuts and lost contracts meant that BBC Radio would never follow the race again.

The 1996 Radio 5 team in full flow – (left to right): David Mercer, Matthew Pinsent, Robert Treharne Jones and Richard Phelps.

Instead David turned his hand to another area where his skill and experience would stand him in good stead, as he became the Boat Race commentator broadcasting over the PA system along Putney Embankment from his vantage point on the balcony of the Crabtree boathouse.

David Mercer

Although tennis was his main game, he was a fully paid-up member of the (now defunct) BARJ – the British Association of Rowing Journalists – and was a regular attender at their Boat Race suppers held during Boat Race week on the Tideway. Despite his friends’ best endeavours, they could never get him to attend Henley because there was always some pressing engagement the same week in SW19.

David is remembered with much affection by the members of the Boat Race press, who recall ‘the perfect gentleman’, calmly efficient on the microphone, and entertaining as a friend and colleague.

David, who lived in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, is survived by his second wife Sue, their daughter Caroline, and two stepchildren, Liz and Chris.

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