Sue Barker: 'British tennis rewards mediocrity. Three women in the top 100 is not too much to ask...'

Brian Viner Interviews
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The Independent Online

Sue Barker and I meet at Queen's Club on the morning that most national newspapers are reporting Martina Navratilova's latest volley of scorn towards the Lawn Tennis Association. It seems like a good opening gambit, not that I'm expecting Barker, a decidedly less feisty character than Navratilova, to give the LTA too much stick for what the nine-times Wimbledon singles champion sees as the unforgivable absence of a single British woman in the world's top 100. However, Barker surprises me. In her genteel way, she's pretty scornful too.

"I had a long-running battle with [the former LTA chief executive] John Crowther," she says. "Martina is accusing the system, and I think a lot of it is the system. We reward mediocrity. When I was playing, all my overseas trips were paid for by the LTA, then by my coach, and from whatever prize-money I made I would have to pay back as much as I could of the fare. Only once that was paid could I keep the extra, and that was a powerful incentive. But now they get into a comfort zone too soon.

"Look at Agassi. He's got all the titles, doesn't need another cent, yet he's still out there wanting to prove himself. Some people have that desire naturally, but not everyone does. Sometimes you have to force it.

"So Martina's absolutely right. Yes, we should have women in the top 100, but we're also missing the base. I have a charity with Cliff [Richard] and Sue Mappin which tries to change the image of tennis by going into schools in the inner-cities. But even in the suburbs the clubs aren't full, the parks aren't full. In that respect we won't ever compete against France, but we should be doing better than we are. Three women in the top 100 is not too much to ask."

Barker herself rose to No 3 in the world in her heyday, and would like nothing more than to see a compatriot scale the same heights, although she might have to resign herself to seeing it from behind a Zimmer frame.

"My real bugbear," she continues, "is why give British players wild cards [into Wimbledon]? They get put on a show court, having only ever played in front of 200 people, and they get thumped, picking up five grand or whatever as a first-round loser. That can damage them mentally. Let them qualify. Let them walk through the gates believing they have every right to be there. So many Brits year after year are given a wild card and lose, 6-1, 6-1. I'd rather see them battling away through the pre-qualifiers, getting more and more matches under their belts."

Even if that meant no Brits in the draw at all? "Yes, because that would be the wake-up call we need. I'm talking about the women, the men have done OK. But it is worrying."

In 1976, things were different. Britain had a woman - Barker - who'd just won a Grand Slam event, the French Open. I bet she can't believe that it's 30 years ago since she beat Miss Tomanova in Paris, by the curious scoreline, 6-2, 0-6, 6-2? She gives her merry laugh. "I can't," she says. "It does feel like ancient history. But on the other hand I can even remember what I had for breakfast that day: cereal with a banana on top. And I remember walking on court thinking that was just my first Grand Slam. If I'd known it would be my only one I would have kissed the umpire, got a lock of his hair..."

A year after her greatest triumph, Barker suffered her most traumatic defeat, losing to Betty Stove in the Wimbledon semi-final to deny Britain, in Silver Jubilee year, the rare spectacle of an all-British final. Even now the pain lingers.

"Three weeks later, in Denver, I beat Betty 6-1, 6-0, in less than an hour. I feel - although it's not an excuse - that if I'd played first I would have won. But Chrissie [Evert] played Virginia [Wade] first, and of course lost, and although I'd beaten Chrissie once that year, I'd beaten Virginia four times. So as soon as Virginia won I was thinking of the final. I'd already dismissed Betty, and anyone in sport will tell you that's the ultimate mistake. It hurt so much that I never played well at Wimbledon again. After that I played better on carpet and hard court, and I won a lot of events in America. I beat all the girls I wanted to beat - Billie Jean [King], Margaret [Court], Chrissie, Martina, Virginia, Evonne [Cawley], but it was over there, not here."

Her success in America somehow did not really register in Britain, and if even those of us who remember her as a player cannot list her many on-court achievements, then what hope the younger generation of tennis fans? They know her only as the BBC's 50-year-old Wimbledon anchorwoman (and perennially cheerful presenter of A Question of Sport), and she understands why.

After all, she has now presented the championships more often (13 times) than she played in them (12 times). And has done so extremely capably, I might add, except when, like her namesake Ronnie, she suffered from a bad case of pismonunciation. It was the line with which she concluded the highlights programme on the day Steffi Graf said her farewells to Centre Court. "At least she goes away with some great mammaries," said Barker, her mortification scarcely alleviated when the director then ran into the studio crying: "You were right!" All television presenters have a good gaffe story, though that is better than most.

What mercifully few of them have is a death threat story. Barker does, although publicly she has understandably said little about it. "In hindsight, it was probably nothing except someone with a bit of madness who wrote a silly letter," she tells me. "But it was a long letter, and my husband [Lance, a former Metropolitan police officer] said that I should let people know at the BBC, because there were other BBC people mentioned. This man wrote about how much he hated the war in Iraq, and that he hated churchgoers. He said that while parents worshipped he wanted to kill their children, and I thought that if something awful did happen, I would never live with myself, so I showed it to the BBC investigators [a special internal unit designed to protect staff], who agreed to take it to the police for intelligence purposes only, but the next morning I switched on the news to find I was the third item. It had been put it in the wrong out-tray, apparently, as a result of which my life was turned upside down."

The letter-writer, who had signed his own name, was jailed for six months, and is now the subject of a court injunction to prevent him from contacting her. Yet she tells me all this with the trademark sunniness that has helped to make her such a success in what she still, 18 years on, regards as an accidental career in television.

And so to Wimbledon fortnight. Does it still give her a buzz? "Gosh, yes. I loved it as a player and before that I went as a schoolgirl to watch, so it's been part of my life for a long time. I go down to Centre Court as soon as I get there just to get in the right mood, and then I meet [John] McEnroe, and I think, 'Here we go'."

Unashamedly, she has a favourite player, and it is Roger Federer. "I loved Sampras even though others didn't, because I could see his genius. But I have never, ever seen anyone strike the ball as sweetly as Federer. He will go down as a legend.

"And on a selfish level he's the most media-friendly person I've ever met. He gives you access that you just don't get with superstars. But I hope [Rafael] Nadal can challenge him on every surface.

"Rivalry at the top has been missing in both the men's and women's game, when you think of Connors, Borg, McEnroe, of Chrissie and Martina, of Edberg, Becker, Lendl. Tennis needs those great rivalries."

British tennis, in the mean time, will settle for rather less.

Sue Barker is presenting coverage of Wimbledon live on BBC1 and BBC2 from Monday