WHEN I arrive at Sue Barker's house, deep in the Surrey countryside, she and her husband, Lance, are out, taking one of their dogs to a nearby veterinary surgery. This is a coincidence, because the last time I spoke to Barker, she told me a cracking story about Laura Bruno, wife of Frank, who had recently taken one of the family rottweilers to the vet. "Name?" said the receptionist. "Bruno," said Laura. "No," said the receptionist, heaving a great exasperated sigh. "I don't mean the dog's name."
Anyway, Barker's absence gives me the chance to poke around in shameless Hello! magazine fashion. The house, as Dan Maskell might have said, is an absolute peach of a place - a listed building, stockbroker-belt cottagey, with mullioned windows and magnificent chimneys. The gardens are similarly splendid and there is a spanking new tennis court in an adjacent field. Barker has not swung a racket for three years, but has promised Lance that she will blow the cobwebs off her forehand this summer. We tend to forget that it was a formidable forehand, voted the best in the women's game five years in succession. "Billie-Jean King used to take me out on court and say that she just wanted to watch my forehand," says Barker, who has returned from the vet's with fulsome apologies. "You can't get greater praise than that."
Indeed. For a time in the mid-Seventies, Barker was ranked No 3 in the world. In 1976 she won the French Open, and until her unexpected defeat by Betty Stove in the 1977 Wimbledon semi-final, she teetered on the brink of greatness. Yet she suffers by association with a period when British tennis languished in the doldrums. 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."
Funny but harsh. Because although Barker never quite overcame an erratic streak, she was considered, for the best part of three years, to be one of the top five women players on the planet. And for that, she had a fellow Devonian to thank, the notoriously severe Arthur Roberts, who had coached Angela Mortimer to three Grand Slam titles between 1955 and 1961. He spotted Barker in 1966, when he visited her convent school and chose two girls with potential. She was 10 years old and his second choice.
"Everyone was terrified of him," she recalls. "My parents weren't allowed to watch me practise, and he would brook no interference whatever." He was just as uncompromising with the tennis establishment. When Barker was 13, the Lawn Tennis Association's national coach advised her - foolishly, as it turned out - to rebuild her forehand. "I was told that I played it too close to my body with a bent elbow, but Mr Roberts refused to change it and resigned from the coaches' association in protest."
He is long gone, but still she refers to him respectfully as Mr Roberts. He was her mentor, her muse even, but never her friend. And when she left to play in tournaments on the Continent, he handed her a one-way ticket only, insisting that she had to earn the fare home. "He was always at the end of a phone and would wire the money if absolutely necessary, but he wanted me to have to make that grovelling call. And when I got back I'd go and sit in his office and he wouldn't talk to me. I'm not sure he was a tremendous coach, but he was certainly a tremendous psychologist."
By the time Barker was 17 - and 21st in the world rankings - Roberts told her that she would only improve 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 IMG, who provided her with a furnished townhouse in Newport Beach, just south of Los Angeles. One of her neighbours was the newly retired Rod Laver, who saw her practising and asked if he could hit with her the following day. It was the middle of the night in England, but a few minutes later, quite forgivably, Mr and Mrs Barker got a you'll- never-guess-what phone call. "I was so thrilled," Barker recalls. "He was such a mega-hero."
Those were heady days for a girl from Torquay. She bought a Jeep and joined the John Wayne Tennis Club, not that she ever set eyes on the great man. If she had, he might have been forgiven for drawling "Get off the court and drink your milk." For Barker was a particularly young and impressionable 17, and it is to her everlasting credit that she not only survived in America but thrived. "I can't pretend I was welcomed in with open arms," she says. She giggles. She is a serial giggler. "Perhaps that is not the best expression for women's tennis," she adds.
Arthur 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 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. Rosie, who was a friend, would come over and ruffle my hair, but it wasn't like that. Nothing was said. I think she wanted to see what reaction she got..."
In 1974, as Barker prepared for her first Wimbledon, Roberts again misled his protegee. He told her that her first-round opponent, an Indonesian girl, had a feeble backhand. "So I hit it to her backhand and she hit it back forehand. I thought: `Crikey, she's left-handed'. So I hit it to the other side and again she hit a forehand. She was ambidextrous. She didn't even have a backhand. I looked over at my coach and he was sitting there with his pipe, chuckling." Whatever psychology Roberts had deployed, it worked. Barker won. But the following year she had a tougher first-round match, against the legendary Brazilian Maria Bueno, who was attempting a comeback. "We were first on Centre Court and I was absolutely terrified. The first set went by in a haze, and I lost it 6-1, but then I started to relax and won the next two 6-2, 6-1."
In 1976 Barker won another three-setter, against the Czech Renata Tomanova, to clinch the French Open. Unfortunately, she has no mementoes of that victory. "I've lost the medal and the replica thing they give you, basically because I thought it would be the first of many Grand Slam titles. If I'd known it would be the only one, I'd have got the umpire's sheet, nicked a ball, the linesman's chair and a bit of dust off the court." In 1977 she felt confident of winning the Wimbledon title, especially once Virginia Wade had beat Chris Evert in the first semi-final. "Billie-Jean came up and said: `Come on Sue, it's your championship now', and I thought: `Blimey, she's right'. I'd never lost to Betty before, I was 3-0 up against Virginia in the Virginia Slims. I was thinking of the final before I even played the semi."
After that devastating defeat by Stove - whom she beat 6-1, 6-0 three weeks later, just to rub it in - Barker was never quite the same player again. Her personal life continued to make headlines, though, for she had well-publicised flings with Greg Norman and, and... no, I can't bring myself to use the C-word. Besides, I know that she gets uncharacteristically testy if anyone does, and understandably so. She has, after all, been married to Lance - a former detective sergeant in the Metropolitan Police - for more than 10 years.
In 1984 - the year she was beaten on Wimbledon's court 14 by the 15-year- old Steffi Graf - Barker's world ranking went into free-fall, from 15 to 63. "I thought that wild cards would be coming out of my ears," she says. But they weren't, and so she decided to retire, aged 28. "I'd earned enough money, I had a flat in Wimbledon, I did some corporate things, but I was really unhappy. After being challenged all my life, suddenly there were no challenges any more."
And then someone at BSkyB decided that she might be reasonably telegenic. Since when, her broadcasting career has blossomed, to the extent that for at least one generation, her association with tennis begins and ends with a blurred shot of Andre Agassi on the Question of Sport picture board. But tennis - not Ally McCoist or John Parrott or even Des Lynam - remains her principal sporting love. And the women's game, she ventures, is in better shape than it's ever been.
"Five years ago, nobody could have named the top 10 women. Now, as well as the old guard of Graf and Seles and so on, there's the Williams sisters, Kournikova... I think it's great. On the other hand, when I was playing, I would often have dinner with Chrissie, Martina and the others. Chrissie was coached by her dad but he wasn't at every tournament with her. Martina was on her own. I was usually on my own. Now, the players are surrounded by parents, coaches, agents, practice partners. I have dinner at Wimbledon and I see a big group at a table with just one teenager. I wonder if they are happy? They don't look happy." Nobody ever said that about Sue Barker.
`Five years ago nobody could name the top 10 women. Now, as well as the old guard, there's the Williams sisters, Kournikova... I think it's great'
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