Sue Barker: A good sport

As presenter of 'Grandstand', she achieved the grand slam that had eluded her on the tennis court
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Wimbledon fortnight is almost upon us and with it Sue Barker's cheerful countenance, which has become as totemic a part of this curious annual ritual as the bivouacs on Church Road and the Henman fans draped in the flag of St George. Barker will get through a lot of smiling these next couple of weeks, and no little amount of giggling, interspersed with the odd chuckle.

Wimbledon fortnight is almost upon us and with it Sue Barker's cheerful countenance, which has become as totemic a part of this curious annual ritual as the bivouacs on Church Road and the Henman fans draped in the flag of St George. Barker will get through a lot of smiling these next couple of weeks, and no little amount of giggling, interspersed with the odd chuckle.

If the weather were Sue Barker, there would never be a rain delay and Centre Court wouldn't need a roof. She is television's answer to the sunbeam, bless her.

But not everyone likes her. There were those who felt, when Des Lynam took ITV's shilling and Barker became the BBC's main Wimbledon presenter, that the witty and avuncular headmaster had been replaced by the giggly PE teacher, albeit a PE teacher who had contested a Wimbledon semi-final, in 1977.

And there are those who will spend the fortnight passing comment on her looks and speculating about whether she has had, or ought to have, cosmetic surgery. Inevitably, the Daily Mail likes to invite its "expert" to scrutinise her. "She's got a lot of sun damage and would benefit from Botox around her eyes and forehead to smooth out some of the wrinkles," he ungallantly concluded last time. "She looks slightly older than she is and she may have had a facelift - if you look at her on television, there's the tiniest trace of a scar in front of her ears."

It is mainly women who lap up this sort of nonsense, while other women rightly complain about the deep-rooted sexism in what might blithely be called our national psyche: nobody bitches about the men on telly looking "slightly older" than they are. Would a woman of equal pulchritude to John Sergeant, for example, ever have been made the BBC's chief political correspondent? One has to assume not. Conversely, would a man with the interviewing skills of Natasha Kaplinsky ever have become a breakfast television presenter? It seems highly unlikely.

Still, that is the way it is in British television, and Barker is at least leading us into uncharted territory. While there are other attractive women such as Anna Ford and Joan Bakewell who have been allowed to age gracefully in other realms of television, there has never, to the best of my knowledge, been a female sports presenter over the age of 50.

It will be interesting to see whether Barker, who turned 49 in April, is encouraged to carry on in front of the camera for as long as Lynam did. After all, it has long been a paradox of sport that those who present or describe it on television, and indeed write about it in newspapers, often grow to be as saggy and wrinkly as the performers whose achievements they celebrate are agile and lithe. Yet that rule has only ever applied to men: the likes of David Coleman, Dan Maskell, Jimmy Hill, Richie Benaud, Bill McLaren, Peter Alliss, Peter O'Sullevan. Will it, one wonders, also embrace women?

Still, Barker has had more significant things than her looks to worry about these past 12 months. In April this year, a 57-year-old man called Barry Tullett was sentenced to six months in jail for sending her death threats. He reportedly wrote that she would be "the next Jill Dando", which upset her not least because Dando had been a close friend. Last year, while Tullett was still at large, she was given police protection.

When Tullett is released, the police will doubtless reassess what kind of threat he poses, if any. In the meantime, it has to be said that Barker is not conspicuously vulnerable to would-be stalkers. Her husband of 17 years, Lance Tankard, is a former detective sergeant in the Met; they live in splendid isolation in 26 acres on the Surrey-Sussex border, and they own several rottweilers. Moreover, Barker is a considerably tougher cookie than her sweet demeanour suggests. This is in large part down to her notoriously severe tennis coach, Arthur Roberts, who spotted her in 1966 when he visited her convent school in Devon and chose two girls with potential. She was 10 years old and his second choice.

"Everyone was terrified of him," she now recalls. "My parents weren't allowed to watch me practise, and he would brook no interference whatever." He was her mentor, but never her friend. Indeed, although he is long gone, she refers to him even now as Mr Roberts.

When she was in her mid-teens, and Roberts deemed that she was good enough to play in tournaments on the Continent, he would hand her a one-way ticket only, insisting that she earn the fare home. Such treatment these days would be considered abusive, yet it worked. By the time Barker was 17 - and 21st in the world rankings - Roberts told her that she would improve only by settling in America. "I was so excited. I remember my parents seeing me off on the platform at Paignton station. My mum was crying and I was trying to cry, but I couldn't. I was just thinking of California."

On her 17th birthday, she had joined Mark McCormack's management agency IMG, which provided her with a furnished townhouse in Newport Beach, just south of Los Angeles. One day, one of her neighbours saw her practising and asked if he could hit with her the following morning: it was the newly retired Rod Laver, still considered by John McEnroe to be the greatest tennis player who ever lived. With Laver as her occasional hitting partner, Barker bought herself a Jeep and joined the John Wayne Tennis Club, heady stuff for a teenager from Torquay. But friendship was harder to come by. "I can't pretend I was welcomed with open arms," she once told me. And then, naturally, she giggled. "Perhaps that is not the best expression for women's tennis," she added.

Roberts had warned her about locker-room lesbianism. "But he had painted such a gruesome picture. He told me there was a good end and a bad end of the locker room, and that I should always check whose bag was next to mine. So I'd go in and, oh my word, I'd be checking the bag next to mine, absolutely paranoid. Even as a junior, I'd known which players were and which weren't, because everyone talked. And people like Billie-Jean [King] and Rosie Casals were open about it anyway. In all my years, I was only approached once. I'm not sure if I'm proud of that or not. And I'm not going to say who it was. It wasn't blatant. I was just touched in a way that didn't feel right. Nothing was said."

In 1976, Barker won the coveted French Open. Only 19, she reasonably assumed it would be the first of many Grand Slam titles, and didn't even hang on to the medal, although she likes to joke that if she'd known then what she knows now, she would have kept a lock of the umpire's hair, a ball, the linesman's chair and a bit of dust off the court.

It was to be her only major title, which is one major title more than Tim Henman has claimed, yet she still suffers by association with a period when British tennis languished even deeper in the doldrums than it does now. She was, wrote that respected tennis analyst Clive James in 1981, "the most spectacular exponent of the baseline bossa nova, the dance performed by British female players when they are about to receive service ... often bouncing up and down more than 30 times before lunging sideways to intercept the service and hit it out".

It was a funny but harsh assessment of a player who rose to number three in the world and whose powerful forehand was coveted even by the great Billie-Jean King. Unfortunately, Barker's stay at the top of women's tennis was abruptly curtailed by her unexpected defeat, to the Dutchwoman Betty Stove, in that 1977 semi-final at Wimbledon.

That was a shattering blow, especially since Virginia Wade had just as unexpectedly beaten Chris Evert in the other semi-final. In the Queen's Silver Jubilee year, Barker had denied the nation an all-British Wimbledon final - a prospect that is unimaginable in the women's game now, when an all-British tie in the third-round would be sufficient cause for jubilation.

Worse, Barker knew that she would probably have beaten Wade in the final. It was a cruel blow, and she was never quite the same player again. At Wimbledon in 1984, when she was beaten on court 14 by the 15-year-old Steffi Graf, her world ranking went into freefall. Facing the humiliation of dropping out of the world's top 100, bothered by injuries and irritated that she was becoming better known for her well-publicised flings with famous men - such as the golfer Greg Norman and, famously, Cliff Richard - she decided to retire.

Retirement has always been a dirty word in sporting circles. But retirement in the mid-1980s was easier than it is today, in the sense that a player of Barker's looks and stature now would have millions in the bank, with little need ever to work again.

Things were different two decades ago. Barker had made good money and invested it sensibly, but she still needed to work. So, as a bright and highly telegenic woman, brought up to capitalise single-mindedly on her every asset, she accepted an offer from Channel 7 in Australia to become a presenter.

Like Gary Lineker a few years later, Barker recognised her limitations in front of the camera and worked hard to overcome them. She subsequently joined Sky, and then moved to the BBC. In 1993, 20 years after becoming the Wimbledon junior champion, she returned to the lawns of SW19 as a broadcaster. When she later succeeded Coleman at the helm of the already venerable quiz A Question of Sport, and was handed the plum job of presenting Grandstand, she had achieved the grand slam that had eluded her on the tennis court. No wonder she keeps smiling. Horrible letters apart, she has plenty to smile about.

A Life in Brief

BORN 1956 in Paignton, Devon.

FAMILY

Married to Lance Tankard.

CAREER

Junior Wimbledon champion at 15 and 21st in world rankings at 17. In 1976 won the French Open title going on to be ranked No. 3 in the world. Started broadcasting on Australia's Channel 7, after retiring from tennis in 1985, moving to Sky Sports and the BBC.

SHE SAYS

"I can go for days without food. When I'm working, I'm known as Nil By Mouth. On Grandstand, that's my nickname. Nil By Mouth."

THEY SAY "Come on Sue, it's your championship now."

Billie-Jean King, after Virginia Wade had beaten Chris Evert in the first semi-final at Wimbledon in 1977, leaving Barker merely to play Betty Stove. She lost.

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