Sue Barker: ‘When BBC is having meetings about replacing you on Wimbledon, it’s time’

Sue Barker at Queen's Club
Sue Barker says she holds her tennis career and broadcasting career 'absolutely level' after her tearful Wimbledon exit in 2022 - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph

Listen very carefully to the BBC’s forthcoming Wimbledon coverage, and you might hear a distinctive silvery laugh coming from stage left. Admittedly, Sue Barker may no longer be part of the broadcasting team. But after keeping her distance last summer, she is finally planning to catch up with old pals.

“Last year, I stayed away,” said Barker, who concluded a 30-year stint as the face of Wimbledon at the end of the 2022 Championships. “I thought, ‘I wouldn’t have liked it if Des Lynam had turned up in my first year’. I didn’t do any interviews either, because I didn’t want Isa [Guha] and Clare [Balding] to be picking up the newspapers plastered about how much I’m missing Wimbledon.

“But this year, I’ve told Mac [John McEnroe] that I’m definitely going up and we’ll hopefully be able to have a cup of tea and a good old chat because I loved working with him.”

Thanks to Barker’s media blackout, this is the first newspaper interview – given to mark the publication of her new book Wimbledon: A Personal History – that she has conducted since her tearful exit two years ago.

Sue Barker gets emotional during her final Wimbledon broadcast for the BBC
Barker was overcome with emotion during her final Wimbledon broadcast

In a poignant twist, her final tournament coincided with the celebrations marking 100 years of Centre Court. Barker was supposed to be the compere for a celebratory event featuring Roger Federer, Venus Williams and Bjorn Borg, yet her pal McEnroe cannily turned the tables. “I just want to say we’re going to be lost without you,” he said, and 15,000 fans rose in a standing ovation. For that golden minute, the understated host was suddenly the star, and 26 former Wimbledon champions with a collective tally of 65 singles titles turned to applaud her.

‘I didn’t want to be diminished’

For all the best efforts of Balding and Guha, Barker was undoubtedly missed last summer. When asked to name her greatest asset as a broadcaster, she answers “being a good listener”, but this is typically humble. In fact, it is the sense of knowledge lightly worn which her successors cannot match.

Barker’s smooth professionalism – and her lack of ego – means that many viewers remained unaware of her own playing career. Ranked at number three in her pomp, she won the 1976 French Open, and was well placed to add a Wimbledon crown before an unexpected slip-up against Betty Stove in the 1977 semi-final.

In a parallel universe, she might have won Wimbledon and never needed to work again. But then, in another parallel universe, she would still be in that BBC studio, hosting the broadcast. Shortly before her departure, she was offered a contract extension until the end of the 2025 tournament. But she turned it down, worrying that she would be gradually sidelined.

“You have to know, when is the right time to go?” she explained last week, as we sat overlooking the plush grass courts of Queen’s Club in south-west London, her trademark bob setting off her dark trousers and a vibrant yellow top.

“I just sensed that, as you get older, you’ve got not many years left. And when you’re hearing that they’re having meetings about who’s to replace you…”

“Although they offered me a contract, I suddenly thought over those three years [on the contract extension], will it be a case of, ‘We’ll just diminish Sue’s role a little so that the transition is slightly easier.’ And I didn’t want to be diminished. I’d rather go out doing the top job.

“So maybe it came a couple of years before I was ready to do it. But in hindsight, it was absolutely the right time. And I couldn’t have picked a better year. I mean, for Mac to do that on Centre Court… It was very humbling and very embarrassing, but just really meant the world to me.”

In fact, Barker did attend Wimbledon last year, but she kept well away from the broadcast compound. Instead, she was bumping into old friends, watching the off-Broadway dramas out on Court 15, and relishing the absence of “talkback” – the constant instructions from a studio manager in her earpiece.

“Everyone always said ‘You’ve got the best seat in the house’,” she explains. “But in actual fact I never watched any tennis. I used to introduce the match on court and as soon as the umpire said play. I was always back to the studio watching it on a monitor this size.” She holds her hands in the dimensions of a shoebox. “I have a bigger TV at home.

“I was just talking to Annabel [Croft], and we were saying how lucky we are being members of the [All England] Club. So that actually when you walk away from presenting, at least you can go back to it. We’re in a very privileged position that we can still go and enjoy the event. If I hadn’t been a member, I think I probably would have stayed on until they kicked me out.”

‘It’s always the scallywags’

If Barker finds it difficult to trust BBC management, this is hardly a surprise. Her Wimbledon departure was nothing compared to the mess that surrounded her defenestration from A Question of Sport, the much-loved institution she had fronted since David Coleman bowed out in 1997. In the summer of 2020, the top brass brusquely informed her and team captains Matt Dawson and Phil Tufnell that their time was up.

Sue Barker alongside Matt Dawson (left) and Phil Tufnell
Barker, along with Matt Dawson (left) and Phil Tufnell were told that their time was up on 'A Question of Sport' in the summer of 2020 - BBC

Then, little more than a week before the recording of the final show, the same bosses asked them all to say they had stepped down voluntarily – a request quickly rejected by all three parties. The whole business left a deep scar. In her 2022 autobiography, Calling the Shots, Barker wrote “It was insulting. Did they actually expect me to sack myself?”

Now when passers-by come up to her, they usually want to talk about A Question of Sport. “It’s always the scallywags, it’s always Matt, Phil and Ally McCoist and John Parrott. People want to know all the stories. It’s either that or Andy [Murray].”

Robbed of her favourite gig, Barker revived it in a series of theatre shows. She, Dawson and Tufnell played 10 dates across the autumn of 2023, reprising the old TV format under the new title Extra Time. But the relaunch of the BBC version in August 2021, featuring Sam Quek and Paddy McGuinness – proved to be a catastrophe. Despite a primetime Friday-night slot, viewing figures dropped from around four million during Barker’s final episodes to less than one million – numbers so dismal that the show was quietly euthanised last December.

After three decades at the BBC, Barker’s relationship with the corporation is too complex to distil into a few words. She still counts many of her former colleagues among her friends, and appreciates that – until the late rancour – she enjoyed a golden run. How many broadcasters, especially female broadcasters, carry on into their late 60s? Barker turned 68 in April, and might even have topped 70 had she accepted that three-year contract extension.

So how did she escape the iron law of TV: no wrinkles on screen? “When I first joined the BBC [as a tennis presenter in 1993], I remember having a conversation with the bosses. Sky were offering me more money, but the BBC were offering all sorts of events I really wanted to do, including Wimbledon. And so I said to the BBC, ‘Longevity-wise, how do you see this?’ And they very cleverly said, ‘That will be down to the viewers. When the viewers have had enough of you, we’ll know’.

“And it’s actually quite true. Back then, nobody thought about going on much beyond their 40s. I was being written off in the early 2000s. All the time, it was ‘Who’s going to replace Sue?’ I wasn’t ready to go then. But things did change. I don’t know where it changed or when it changed, but I never ever thought I would have thirty years doing that job.”

Didn’t she have to deal with everyday sexism in such a notoriously male-dominated workplace? “No, almost the opposite. In fact, they handed me everything. I think they broke down the barriers more than put them up for me.

“When I was first starting out, I remember going to Des [Lynam] and saying, ‘As a female, should I do this?’ And he was really supportive, really helpful. He said, ‘Look, you’ve got to do it. You know sport, and you understand what everyone’s going through’.

“Whereas so many other people were, ‘Oh, you haven’t come through the broadcast side of things’. OK, I hadn’t. [Instead, she had learnt on the job, first as a commentator for Channel 7 in Australia, and then as the anchor for BSkyB’s tennis coverage]. But then the career broadcasters don’t know what it’s like to walk out on Centre Court at Wimbledon.

“I did Sports Personality of the Year the very next year after I joined the BBC. I was doing Grandstand and I was doing the Olympics. I never expected to do those shows, but it was a privilege. And then David Coleman, getting me A Question of Sport. ‘We’ll have a female quiz-mistress’ – is that the word? That was unheard of as well.”

‘Cliff Richard kept harping on about me’

The Grandstand appointment was a particular highlight. This was the show that Barker had grown up watching with her parents Betty, a housewife, and Bob, who worked in Plymouth as an area representative for the brewery company Bass Charrington. Her older sister Jane was a tennis enthusiast who started her down this long road by making her collect the balls, and her brother Neil made a career in telecoms.

“I once made the dreadful mistake of putting the Grandstand music on my phone,” Barker explained. “And of course, it’s so iconic that every time it rang, people looked around and said ‘It’s her!’ So I had to change it quickly, because I suddenly thought ‘I want to be anonymous, thank you very much’.”

As soon as Barker walks off court or out of the studio, anonymity has always been her preference. On the face of things, her warm and chatty persona would make her a natural target for Strictly Come Dancing. Unfortunately for the scouts, she hates the idea, and explains that her husband Lance – a former detective in the Metropolitan Police and amateur tennis enthusiast whom she met while coaching at a David Lloyd leisure centre – would divorce her as soon as she turned her first waltz.

She prefers not to say too much about her home life, except that the couple live in the Cotswolds and have a geriatric dog who may keep Lance at home during Wimbledon. And she certainly does not like talking about Cliff Richard, the tennis-loving singer who took her out on a few dates in 1982. In Calling the Shots, she revealed her exasperation over Richard’s repeated reheating of that brief interlude.

“The only thing we have fallen out about is the fact that he kept harping on about me in interviews – ‘I didn’t love her enough to propose’, and so forth … I really enjoyed our early friendship, but the hurt that came with all his talk, not just for me, but for Lance – who’s been constantly reminded why someone else wouldn’t marry his wife – is something that is just not fair.”

Any discussion of politics is also taboo. When I mention that this year’s Wimbledon broadcast will necessarily have to fit around the General Election on July 4 – otherwise known as second-round day – Barker throws her head back. “Don’t ask me about that. I’m not interested in the election. Between the Euros and the election, I don’t know where tennis is going to feature, but probably not that highly. Not even interested. Thank you.”

Barker sees herself as two things: a former athlete and a broadcaster. Her tennis career lasted 12 years, and was nurtured by the advice of an eccentric coach: Arthur Roberts, who worked out of the Palace Hotel in Torquay and had also coached 1961 Wimbledon champion Angela Mortimer. Even though Roberts refused to leave Devon under any circumstances, he insisted that his 17-year-old protegée should travel to the US in 1974 and join the nascent WTA Tour, which had been launched the previous summer.

Sue Barker after beating Renata Tomanova in the French Open final in 1976
Barker says she would rather be a top player back in the 70s as opposed to today due to 'the moments and memories' - Allsport Hulton

If Barker gives the impression of small-c conservatism, that may be because, as a teenager, she found herself thrust into the unfamiliar environment of American big-city life: a homebody from Paignton in Devon who was suddenly driving a convertible through the streets of Los Angeles. The transition was thrilling but also confusing, and often lonely too. But she still considers herself privileged to have played in the era she did.

“If someone offered me to be number three in the world today or number three in the world back in the 70s, I’ll take the 70s every time, even though we didn’t make the money. The moments we have, the memories we had, the friendships we made – I don’t think that would happen now. I hope the modern players get to mingle with each other, but I never see it much.

“Fifty years on, I’m still in touch with Chrissie [Evert] and Martina [Navratilova] and Billie [Jean King]. In those days, we’d be practising with each other one minute, and then competing in tournaments the next. Billie turned 80 last year and she’s still going to the Olympics, still WhatsApping me about this ice-hockey league she’s started. I’m worrying about where I’m going to walk the dog!

“In fact, I was on the Chris Evans breakfast show this morning and he made me realise that if I’d made more money as a player then I wouldn’t have had to get a job. In which case I would have missed out on this amazing second life. I have to say that I hold my tennis career and my broadcasting absolutely level. Of course the adrenalin and the buzz of going on Centre Court is far better… but the broadcasting career was an absolute joy.”

‘Roger is the easiest interview’

Despite the camaraderie of that tightly knit friendship group from the 1970s and 80s, certain very public faultlines have emerged. Take the question of Saudi Arabia, and the wisdom of the WTA Tour’s decision to take its finals event there at the end of this season. Barker is sympathetic to King’s arguments on Middle Eastern misogyny, which prioritise “engagement” over moralising. This puts her at odds with both Navratilova and Evert, whose joint column for the Washington Post in January described the Saudi finals as “a significant step backward, to the detriment not just of women’s sport, but women”.

In Barker’s view, “Billie is looking at it from the future. You know, it’s either morals or the future. And in some ways, I just think that you have to go with it, it’s going to happen.”

Regarding the trans debate, however, Barker tends to agree with Navratilova – someone who has bravely stood up against self-ID in sport. She does not like the idea of young girls working to better themselves, only to find that the goalposts have been moved towards some unobtainable standard. “I just think you take away the young girls’ dreams,” she said, “so I am definitely with Martina.”

These days, Barker is spending most of her time at her hideout in an unspoilt Gloucestershire village, with occasional expeditions to book signings and suchlike. She was especially delighted to be asked to help Roger Federer promote his new filmFederer: Twelve Final Days – by interviewing him at the recent Leicester Square premiere.

Sue Barker attends the premiere for Federer: Twelve Final Days
Barker recently interviewed Roger Federer at the London premiere of his new film 'Federer: Twelve Final Days' - Ian West/PA

Is Federer the player she developed the greatest rapport with? She pauses, then nods. “Probably, because I interviewed him so many more times than anyone else. Roger is the easiest person to interview because he is so giving. But I also really enjoyed doing the Andy [Murray] documentary [2013’s The Man Behind the Racquet]. I’ve always loved interviews with Andy because he has a great sense of humour – but very, very dry.”

And what about Emma Raducanu – the young starlet who wore an England football shirt during a notable early interview with Barker in July 2021, just two months before her record-breaking triumph at the US Open? “After New York, I think people had unrealistic expectations, because we in tennis know how many young first-time champions there have been – [Bianca] Andreescu, [Jelena] Ostapenko, [Sofia] Kenin – who have had to adjust.

“The media pressures are more than it ever was in any other era. But now that all those expectations have lowered, I hope she can just start enjoying it again because when she burst on to the scene at that first Wimbledon she was a breath of fresh air. If she could just learn to love to play again – rather than feeling ‘I’ve got to win because otherwise I’m going to get criticised’ – I think she’ll turn it all around.”

Does she think it’s the lifestyle of modern tennis that represents a bigger challenge than the sport itself? Haven’t leading figures like Naomi Osaka and Ashleigh Barty spoken of the toll it takes on their mental health?

For the first time in our interview, Barker looks at me with a schoolmistressly glint. “You know, there are sacrifices in everything in life. Today they don’t have to play as much as we used to. If you went to Australia, you had to make it worthwhile by staying there for eight weeks. If you went to America, you had to play six tournaments. Nowadays, you can fly back, fly there, fly there, so you have plenty of off time.

“[For Raducanu] I know there’s been some injuries, but I don’t think she’s played that many tournaments this year. So you do have time for that off life as well as the on. Honestly, the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices.”