BBC serves up celebrity ace for 'Grandstand' viewers: Former tennis star crafts new career in front of the TV cameras. David Lister reports

David Lister
Thursday 24 September 2015 08:47

SUE BARKER, the former tennis star who presented the BBC's coverage of Torvill and Dean's attempt to recapture Olympic gold last night, is to front Grandstand this summer.

The BBC will shortly announce her promotion to one of television's top sports posts, cementing a rise in the media ranks that has been almost as rapid as her progress up the ladder of the international tennis circuit in the 1970s.

It is a remarkable comeback to national celebrity for a woman originally famed for being the girlfriend of Cliff Richard and for being a British player who won a Grand Slam tournament (the French Open).

Her new media career is already flourishing - this week she co- hosts the climax of the Winter Olympics with Steve Rider; in the summer she will again join Harry Carpenter for the Wimbledon fortnight, where her performance last year won many plaudits.

It had a sudden beginning. A succession of injuries and a fall in her ranking from 16th to 63rd caused her to announce her retirement from the game in a dramatic on-court speech at the Australian Open in 1984.

'I took the car back to my hotel where a message was waiting for me to ring Channel 7. I thought, 'Oh God, not another interview', but they asked me to come and start on their sport programme the next day to give expert analysis - to be a colour commentator as they called it. There was no training, nothing.'

There was no training either when David Hill, then head of sport on Sky, recruited her two years ago to be one of the presenters on its Saturday sports programme.

'I turned up and was told my first broadcast was in a few minutes' time. It was a classic, absolutely awful. I rattled through it, it wasn't even making sense, and then I was left for the last four seconds just smiling at the camera.

'It was the longest four seconds of my life. Afterwards I said I wanted to quit, but David said, 'You've only made two mistakes, I never sack anyone until they've made three'. So I carried on doing five-minute slots, the sports news round-ups - which proved to be very good on-the-job training.

'What I was taught at Sky was to make the people understand by chatting and make it all less formal.' Then came the approach from the Beeb.

While Sky took a quiet pride in the fact that the BBC wanted to sign up its stars, its irritation in losing Barker was understandable. It had allowed the BBC to have her for the Wimbledon fortnight and offered a half-and-half arrangement when the BBC wanted to sign her full-time - but the corporation was not interested. Sam Chisholm, Sky's chief executive, decided to take legal action.

In the BBC's Wimbledon team the strengths of Sue Barker were immediately apparent. She offered a number of technical insights, not just into the game but into the players' psyche, and was not afraid to be critical of those on the court who are still friends, a rare quality among the large number of former sports stars that fill the BBC commentary boxes.

For Barker, being a critic was not always easy, mingling as she did with the girls in the locker room the next day. 'They did sometimes get upset about it. Martina (Navratilova) watches everything, absolutely everything, and she came up to me quite angry one day, saying 'I heard you, I heard what you said about Steffi (Graf)'. But I will tell them exactly why I thought they weren't playing well, compare their performance with a previous one and, if they can honestly say to me they did play well, then I will apologise.'

Having bridled at some of the expert analysis of her during her 13 years on the circuit, she feels she can turn that knowledge to good use. 'I know what hurts and what doesn't hurt, and athletes tend to trust other athletes.'

Combined with an interest in skating of her own, this sympathy has helped her form a friendship with Torvill and Dean. 'It's certainly made the Olympics for me,' she says. 'Some people knock ice dance, but the mental and physical demands on competitors are incredible. If you're nervous before a big tennis match at least you can play yourself in, whereas Jayne and Chris have to do their stuff straight away.'

Leading article, page 15

(Photograph omitted)

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