Female sports presenters are the in thing these days - a job lot of them on regional television, Helen Rollason ably fronting Sport on Friday across the nation - but until now the top spot, Grandstand on Saturday afternoon, has remained resolutely Blokes' World. It is one of the plum positions in television sport, and in taking it on, the 38-year-old Barker will complete the metamorphosis from Great British Tennis Hope via Cliff Richard's Girlfriend via part-time tennis coach to copper's wife (she is hitched to Detective Sergeant Lance Tankard) and high-profile Media Person.
You will probably be tuning in to her this week, as she is co-hosting the World Skating Championships from Tokyo with Steve Rider. She may well be fronting the London Marathon, and later on this summer she will be at Wimbledon with Harry Carpenter. 'I love it,' she said. 'I get a buzz on every programme in the same way that I did with my tennis. It's an exciting day for me whenever I do a programme. I missed that when I got out of tennis, the excitement of the unknown.'
In Copenhagen for the European Skating Championships she won admiration for her style and brownie points for her frank admission of ignorance when tackling subjects about which she knew nothing. 'I'm not afraid to admit things. Even on air. I walked in very much as the new girl, I've still got a lot to learn, but I've just got to be honest, got to be me. I'll say, hold on, I don't understand. I'm wanting to learn - I'm just naturally inquisitive. I don't consider it a fault. Anyway, who knows a lot about the luge unless they do it?'
It is nine years since she gave up the tennis, a career that began on a badly lit wooden court at the Palace Hotel, Torquay, where as a Paignton schoolkid she honed her marvellous forehand under the eye of a wizened old guru called Arthur Roberts (she always referred to him as Mr Roberts). At one stage she rose to No 3 in the world and won a Grand Slam event, the 1976 French Open. She was also a semi-finalist at Wimbledon.
But the 1985 Australian Open followed a year of injuries and a slide down the rankings from 16 to 63. So bad had things become that she would have had the indignity of qualifying for the event had the organisers not given her a wild card. The fuss the Australians made about it was humiliating. She is typically generous about it now - 'it would be like giving a low-ranking Australian player a wild card to play at Wimbledon' - but knew that at 28 she would not be served wild cards everywhere she went, and asked herself if she really wanted to go back to playing qualifiers against hungry 15-year-olds. She decided that unless she had a fantastic Australian Open she would give it all up. She lost in the second round and at the post-match press conference, when they asked what her plans were, she said she had no plans because she was quitting.
She took a long holiday and started dabbling in a bit of TV punditry but was already getting bored with life after tennis when her friend David Lloyd invited her to do some coaching for him at one of his tennis clubs. 'She wanted to try to find some girls for coaching,' Lloyd said, 'and I said, 'Go out there and pick a few', and she did well. But I think she always wanted to go into TV. She's very natural, she knows the stuff - and she's a pretty girl, which makes a big difference.' It was on one of Lloyd's coaching holidays that she met her future husband.
Barker's looks may have opened the door for her, but she would have been ushered back out through it quickly enough if she hadn't cut the mustard. 'I suppose I break the mould of sports presenters, basically. Most are journalists who know the sports and I fall way behind in that, but having played at top level is an advantage. My looks? God, I think they've held me back] My hair is my hair every week - I don't do anything special to it for TV. The make-up people can make you look beautiful but I don't go out to try to look any different than if someone saw me in the street. I love nice clothes and now I have an excuse. But right now I'm in these jeans and a sweater. Some people think they've got to dress up all the time but I do sport, I'm an ex-sports person, I don't need to be anything I'm not.'
Two years ago, Sky made her one of the presenters on its Saturday sports programme - five- minute slots, sports news round-ups - which was by way of being her on-the-job training. Sky's big mistake was to let the BBC borrow her for Wimbledon fortnight. She did it so well that the Corporation signed her full-time.
She says she knows what questions people like to be asked so she asks them, though that was a problem when she first got into broadcasting because she felt reluctant to throw anything awkward at them. Now her loyalty is to the viewers - 'they want to know things'. She still gets nervous on the air, and there are still things she dreads asking. 'But I've never been met with a horrible response because I think they know they have to be asked.'
She is quite clearly sincere in her gratitude to mentors such as Steve Rider. 'He has never been too busy to talk to me,' Barker said, 'and helped me so much at the Winter Olympics. I feel I learnt a lot.' Des Lynam has been 'brilliant', three years back giving her some of the best advice she has ever had: if something went wrong she shouldn't try to cover it up, she should just tell the viewers about it.
The high regard is mutual. 'She's not prepared to sit back on her celebrity as a former tennis player,' Lynam said. 'She realised she had to turn pro. Some come in from sports and don't do that, they don't bother learning the techniques. Just sounding natural while reading from autocue isn't the simplest thing, let alone listening to talkback, but she's handled all that.
'She's also a bloody nice person. What comes through on the screen is someone you like. Not because she's sugary - she's likeable and she's turned pro. It's as though she said to herself, 'Well I played tennis, but that was then. This is now, and I'm a TV professional'. She's got to be careful now that she's not put in those twee girly situations: Girl Goes Into A Rugby Dressing Room. Ignore the fact that she's an attractive woman and do it straight as sports.'
She gives the impression of having a genuinely happy temperament. The word 'lucky' crops up constantly in dialogue with her. 'I think when you've struggled on the circuit you do appreciate things,' David Lloyd said. 'She was very pleased to get the chance, and every time she does it she gets better.' She played in the best era of women's tennis; she wanted to be world No 1 but got to three behind Chris and Martina. 'I'm not upset about my career,' she said. 'I feel very privileged. I look back at the best bits and it was great. I would have loved the money and disliked the pressure.'
The one that got away? It has to be that Wimbledon semi-final against Betty Stove in 1977. Jubilee Year: if she'd got through to play the eventual champion, Virginia Wade, we would have had an all- British final. 'It would have changed my life but not necessarily for the better - higher profile, more pressure. I beat Betty 6-1, 6-0 three weeks later on an indoor court. I didn't like playing on grass, I never felt confident. It's a match I should have won. But there were matches I should have lost. That's one of the reasons I love sport: the ups and downs.'
It was a tough decision to leave Sky, 'but I just knew that career-wise I'd regret it if I turned down the BBC. They wouldn't ask again.' That's what Mr Roberts taught her: you've got to go for something. 'If you fail, you can think, 'At least I tried. I can have a good old drink and resign - or they'll sack me and I'll still have a good old drink.' ' But there's little chance of Barker having to reach for the bottle.Reuse content