Sue Barker interview: My coach resigned in protest when LTA tried to change my game – I owe him everything

Sue Barker at Wimbledon in 1977 - Sue Barker interview: Emma Raducanu missed out on fun – she needs to learn how to enjoy winning - PA
Sue Barker at Wimbledon in 1977 - Sue Barker interview: Emma Raducanu missed out on fun – she needs to learn how to enjoy winning - PA

In the mind of the average British tennis fan, the sun is always shining at Wimbledon. It is a nationwide delusion which owes much to the upbeat personality of Sue Barker, one of life’s natural mood-enhancers.

Whatever direction the BBC go in next summer, there can be no replacing Barker’s infectious giggle, which provided the soundtrack to the tournament for almost three decades until her retirement in July.

Here is a woman who can cast any experience in a positive light. In her new autobiography, Calling the Shots, Barker even positions her own agonising defeats on Centre Court as a long-term boon. “If I’d won the semi-final [against Betty Stove in 1977] and maybe won Wimbledon … I might never have ventured into television. And of course that’s opened up the most amazing 30 years.”

Barker’s glass is more than merely half-full. It is brimming over. And yet, when she began delving in her family archive last year for historical documents, she was surprised to discover a trove of long-forgotten heartache.

“When I read the letters I wrote back from America, I thought ‘Oh my word,’” said Barker, who was still a golden-haired ingenue when she exchanged her small-town life in Paignton for the genuine sunshine of Newport Beach, California, in 1974.

“In my head, I had this image that I'd just loved every minute. But I found that I’d been writing about how lonely I was, how depressed I was, and how my game had gone off. Even my friends from that time said that, when I came home, I didn’t want to go back.

“I do remember one of my first days in California, driving around trying to get my bearings. There was a drive-in bank and a drive-in dry-cleaners, a drive-in this and a drive-in that. America was just so weird, you know? At 17, I was thinking ‘What am I doing here?’”

Barker might never have left the UK if she had fitted more neatly into the system. But she had an unusual game, based around a closed-grip forehand that was at least a decade ahead of its time. A report from a 1969 national training camp ruled that she needed to remodel that forehand – which would one day be considered the best on the professional tour – because she hit it with “a bent elbow close to her body”.

Had Barker listened to this advice, we can be confident that she would never have won the French Open in 1976. Nor risen to No 3 in the world rankings behind the immortal duo of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.

Sue Barker at the French Open in 1976 - Sue Barker interview: Emma Raducanu missed out on fun – she needs to learn how to enjoy winning - GETTY IMAGES
Sue Barker at the French Open in 1976 - Sue Barker interview: Emma Raducanu missed out on fun – she needs to learn how to enjoy winning - GETTY IMAGES

Fortunately, her stern and distant coach Arthur Roberts was a maverick in his own right. Having talent-spotted Barker at the age of 11 during a PE-class knockabout, Roberts thought her a talent to rank alongside Virginia Wade. So when that condescending missive arrived about her forehand, he resigned from the LTA in protest.

According to Calling The Shots, the incident created an “Us and Them mentality”. Roberts would remain Barker’s coach throughout all 19 years of her tennis journey. Her book – which ends with the words “God bless you, Arthur” – often feels like a platonic love-letter from pupil to teacher.

One of Roberts’s many eccentricities was that he wouldn’t travel from his base at the Palace Hotel in Torquay which is how Barker found herself flying solo in the States, only a year into Billie Jean King’s WTA revolution.

“There were actually two WTA tours at that stage,” Barker recalled. “If you reached a semi-final on the Futures level, you earned a fortnight with the big girls on the Champions tour. And trust me: when I went up, I was out on the Monday or Tuesday. I would be facing Evonne [Goolagong], Billie Jean, Margaret [Court], Virginia. Then you’re not playing again for a week, because it was usually an indoor venue with no real practice courts around, other than finding country clubs somewhere.

“Those weeks were lonely, but it was still extremely exciting to be part of the tour, because women's tennis was the one sport that really took off at that time. Previously, there had been a few ice-skaters and Nancy Lopez in golf, maybe a couple of runners. But other than that, women athletes were really not well known. Then, suddenly, Chrissie and Martina came along. Chrissie in particular was everywhere.”

Sue Barker and Serena Williams - Sue Barker interview: Emma Raducanu missed out on fun – she needs to learn how to enjoy winning - GETTY IMAGES
Sue Barker and Serena Williams - Sue Barker interview: Emma Raducanu missed out on fun – she needs to learn how to enjoy winning - GETTY IMAGES

It’s strange to think that, today, the WTA Tour has not a single player who could command that sort of recognition. Prize money has ballooned out of sight since the first Virginia Slims tournament was staged, with a pot of $25,000. And yet, since the retirement of Serena Williams last month, women’s tennis is looking for a figurehead.

“Although it's exciting that you have different grand-slam champions, you also need to have household names,” said Barker. “And we don't know who these people are. When Simona Halep won Wimbledon I thought she might have been the one to dominate, but it hasn’t happened. Ash Barty had the personality and the game but stepped away.

“Watching that US Open final last year, with Emma [Raducanu] and Leylah [Fernandez], I was thinking that this would be a fabulous rivalry – which is exactly what we need. But I'm probably being biased because Emma’s British.”

‘Raducanu needs one person she trusts and believes in’

For Barker, who never strayed far from Roberts’s common-sense advice, it is hard to conceive of burning through coaches at the rate of two or three a season – the paradigm for Raducanu’s short career to date.

“I feel she needs one person that she really trusts and believes in,” said Barker. “Every coach comes in with a different mindset, a different way of wanting to play and a different way of teaching. And to me that would be totally confusing. It would be disruptive before it became effective. But I also feel that the pressure that she's been put under has just been immense.

“For me, the happiest years of my career were when I was learning the game. Even though I was writing my little sad letters from America, I remember my big wins: beating Margaret Court and Evonne and then playing Chrissie in the final at Madison Square Garden. Taking on the people I’d watched at Wimbledon, I felt like I’d arrived, you know? But I’d also been building up gradually. Whereas Emma won a major in the fifth tournament she played. So she missed out on the fun things. Now that her ranking has dropped, she can get on with just winning a few matches.

“She's got the game and she's shown she's got the mindset and physically she's fabulous. I mean, I don't know about the injuries and what's happening with those, but she got through the US Open from qualifying. I just feel that she’s got all the attributes. Now she’s got to learn how to win and maybe how to enjoy it.”

Enjoyment was certainly the key for Barker. There’s a passage in Calling The Shots in which, sometime in the mid-1980s, she spots Steffi Graf dining with her entourage at a nearby table for eight in Wimbledon village. “I thought, How sad, there is not one person her age with her.”

Barker laughed when I brought that story up. “I’m sure Steffi was perfectly happy with her lot,” she said. “But I wouldn’t change the era I came up in. We all looked after each other and the friendships we made were deep and lasting.

“Whatever I might have moaned about to my parents at the time, I look back now and think I was so, so lucky.”

Sue Barker’s theatre tour runs until October 21