Ron Atkin in 1977. In the mid-1990s he became the tennis correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph and then went on to the Independent on Sunday. Photograph: Jane Bown/The Observer
Ronald Atkin, a former sports editor of the Observer, was a journalist of impeccably high standards, whether looking after other writers’ copy or fashioning his own, usually on top-level tennis or football matches. But as a representative of an old Fleet Street newspaper community that did not take itself too seriously, he also had an ability to laugh at the foibles of his profession.
In an amusing piece written in 2012 for the website of the Sports Journalists’ Association, which had voted him their journalist of the year almost 30 years earlier, he listed some of the many ways in which his byline had been mangled over the years. Among the variations, he had been Atkins, Aitken, Atkinson and Hatchkin, and sometimes Rod or Tim rather than Ronald. In the citation for their supreme award in 1984, even the SJA had managed to get it wrong.
Ron, who has died aged 92, tended to get things right, whether as the tennis correspondent and occasional football and cricket writer for the Observer, the Sunday Telegraph and the Independent on Sunday, or as the author of books on the Mexican Revolution, the Canadian Mounties, the retreat from Dunkirk and the 1942 Dieppe raid. There was also a guide to the world’s greatest bars – a product of his convivial nature, another characteristic of the old Fleet Street.
Two years after the death in 1982 of his first wife, Brenda, he married Julie Welch, an Observer colleague whom he had encouraged to become the first woman to cover English league football for a national newspaper. Early in her career as the only woman in the press box, Welch had endured – among many other egregious examples of sexist behaviour – the experience of being grabbed and kissed by the manager of Stoke City, Tony Waddington.
As her department head, Atkin wrote immediately to Waddington, first asking for a solution to the problems the paper had intermittently experienced in securing passes for Stoke’s matches. “Until you accede to this request,” he added, “I must ask you to stop kissing our reporters.”
He was born in Aspley, a suburb of Nottingham, where his parents were employed in important local industries. His father, George, worked at Raleigh, then the world’s largest cycle factory, while his mother, Winnie (nee Truman), was a lacemaker. He attended High Pavement grammar school before leaving at 16 to join the Nottingham Evening Post, then one of the city’s four daily papers.
In the classic progression for those showing aptitude and enthusiasm, he went from messenger to copy boy to reporter and subeditor.
In 1953 he arrived in Bermuda for the first of two spells working as a reporter on a local paper. Back in the UK four years later, he took casual subbing jobs on Fleet Street and married Brenda Burton, who had been a neighbour in Aspley, and two of whose sculptures were chosen for the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. After the birth of their first son, Tim, the family returned to Bermuda, where they stayed for a couple more years before settling back in Britain with a second son, Mike, and a job for Ron as a downtable sub on the Daily Mail.
Saturday subbing shifts on the Observer’s sports desk led to the offer of a position as deputy to the sports editor, Clifford Makins, working with such star writers as Hugh McIlvanney and Arthur Hopcraft, who became his great friends. There was also the opportunity to contribute the occasional match report until he was promoted to sports editor after Makins’ departure in 1972.
He was also beginning to write books, with a particular emphasis on military history. The success of his account of the 1910-20 Mexican revolution, published in 1969, enabled him to build a house on the Costa Brava in Spain which would remain a base for family holidays.
In 1975 Donald Trelford, the Observer’s editor, decided that a change was needed. Ron was offered a choice of writing jobs and opted to become tennis correspondent, concentrating on a game he loved. With its trips to the major tournaments in New York, Paris and Melbourne as well as Wimbledon, this was an assignment that would bring him great enjoyment and many more friendships over the next few decades, as well as the opportunity to ghostwrite the autobiography of Fred Perry, the great prewar Wimbledon champion.
In an era when journalists and the heroes they wrote about stayed in the same hotels and often ate together, Arthur Ashe, the 1975 Wimbledon champion, became the godfather to Ron’s fourth son, Nick. The third son, Lucas, had already acquired his own famous godfather: Brian Clough, the great manager of Nottingham Forest, the club that held Ron’s allegiance throughout his life.
A broad range of sporting interests was reflected on those Saturdays when there was no tennis to write about and he would go off to cover a football or cricket match.
While on holiday in France with Julie and their children in 1994, he learned that he was being made redundant by the Observer. He had already been approached to become tennis correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph and was happy to take both the redundancy payment and the new job. A further switch to the Independent on Sunday in 2000 gave him several years with a happy team, writing about tennis, football and other sports until that, too, came to an end in 2008.
He continued to write daily notes for the Wimbledon programme into his 80s, to listen to the music he loved (he had seized the chance to see Frank Sinatra at Carnegie Hall during one of his trips to New York for the US Open), and to read his favourite authors, who included Paul Theroux, Garrison Keillor and Robert Harris.
He is survived by Julie, whose book The Fleet Street Girls was published in 2020, and by his four sons, two from each marriage.
Ronald George Atkin, journalist and author, born 6 November 1931; died 11 January 2024