It was a dream Grand Slam title for a rising British tennis star. There might have been no TV cameras, no coach or parents watching either, but when she was lifting the trophy that didn’t matter – this was supposed to be the first of many.
If Sue Barker had known her 1976 French Open triumph would be her only major title – and indeed still the most recent singles trophy for a Briton at Roland Garros – it’s fair to say she would have done things a little differently.
When she got home, she realised she’d lost the medal and had no photos or footage to look back on.
“I would have collected everything from the court – a bit of dust from Roland Garros, the umpire sheet to prove that I’d won it – but I was just rushing off to have my glass of champagne!” says Barker, who was only 20 when she won one of her sport’s four biggest tournaments.
To anyone under 50, Barker, now 64, is probably better known for being a TV presenter than a world number three tennis player.
But this was a player whose formidable forehand was voted ‘best in the game’ by her peers several years in a row and who recorded victories over many of the sport’s greatest names – from Martina Navratilova, to Chris Evert, to Billie Jean King.
Barker describes the start of her tennis story as like something from a Hollywood movie – for reasons that will soon become clear. There were some painful defeats along the way, and injury heartbreak too. But a mysterious phone call would open up a whole new chapter in retirement – leading to a unique perspective on her sport, and the life she’s led in it.
Raised in Devon, Barker outgrew the British tennis system quickly and at 17 was advised by her coach to move to the United States, so she could play on the professional circuit there and train with some of the world’s best players.
It was the summer of 1973 when her life changed overnight.
“I rented a car at Los Angeles airport – I’d only passed my driving test about a month before – and I upgraded myself to a convertible, drove down the 405 freeway to Newport Beach where my new townhouse was and collected my keys,” she says.
“I’d just moved out of a room I shared with my sister, and here I am with my own two-bed house – it was a really bizarre feeling.”
Barker was in a complex with other tour players and often ended up hitting with 11-time Grand Slam singles champion Rod Laver, who had recently retired.
“I felt like I’d gone into a Hollywood movie,” she says. “I’d gone from playing on the Palace Hotel tennis courts down in Devon to here I am at the John Wayne Tennis Club hitting with Rod Laver. I’d gone into fantasy land somehow.
“I’d phone my mum as soon as I’d hit with him: ‘Mum! I’ve just hit with Rod Laver!’ It was a thrill to play with one of my absolute idols.”
It was a successful move, with Barker winning her first two top-level titles the following year. The next season she picked up a further three, while also reaching her first Grand Slam semi-final at the 1975 Australian Open.
By the time of the French Open at the end of May 1976 she was on an excellent run on clay, having reached the final in Bournemouth and won the title in Hamburg earlier that month.
She arrived in Paris as the top seed and facing a relatively favourable draw because of some high-profile absences, including two-time defending champion Evert, King and Navratilova. Would their presence have made any difference? Barker can point to victories over all those players during her career and was the form player on the surface at the time.
Her opponent in the final was Czech Renata Tomanova, who had been runner-up in the Australian Open earlier in the year. Barker had beaten her in the recent Hamburg final and so she should have been brimming with confidence. Instead, it had crumbled the previous evening.
“I used to practise always really well and everyone used to say if you practise badly then you normally play well, whereas I think that was the problem with my career – I always practised really well and then didn’t play as well,” Barker says.
“It was really weird – the day before the final I went to practise with a good friend, Glynis Coles, and we played and I was just awful. She beat me fair and square and I was just thinking, ‘What am I going to do? I’m going to get thumped tomorrow’.
“I got really worried, quite depressed about it, because normally I was so confident on the practice courts.”
Barker looked to have suppressed her doubts by taking the first set 6-2 before “getting absolutely tonked” in the second, which she lost 6-0.
In those days players got a 10-minute break before a deciding set, which proved vital for Barker. She got a quick pep talk from national coach Tony Mottram, who happened to be at Roland Garros for a different player.
“I went out and managed to get my act together. I do wonder if I hadn’t had that 10 minutes to regroup whether I would have panicked,” she says.
When Tomanova double-faulted on match point, Barker ran to the net to shake hands. There were no wild celebrations, no running up to the players box to kiss everyone in the entourage – players were on their own in those days.
The match was not televised and so Barker’s parents had no idea whether their daughter had won until after the trophy presentation, when she headed straight to the tournament office to ask: “Can I make a phone call to England, please?”
They had to wait even longer to celebrate with her.
“I remember having a couple of glasses of champagne and getting on the plane, getting back to Heathrow and feeling so ill. I was going to drive home to see my parents but I felt so rotten I ended up going to one of the airport hotels and sleeping there because I just thought I can’t drive, I feel completely drunk!” she says.
She thinks that hotel may also be where she ended up leaving the medal. Years later she received a photo of herself from a Frenchman who had been at the final, and also a video tape from a man in the United States who had recorded a news item about her win, so she does at least now have a couple of mementos.
Even longer after that, when 2019 champion Ashleigh Barty was checking the names on the trophy it emerged Barker’s nationality had been engraved wrong – listing her as Australian.
“I think it’s because I used to play so much in Australia that people used to think I was Australian. There weren’t that many British players on the clay,” she says. “But it doesn’t really bother me, I knew I ‘d won it.”
With that victory, Barker’s career was seemingly on the up, but bitter disappointment was just around the corner.
Barker had continued her fine form that year in front of home fans at Wimbledon, reaching the quarter-finals where she faced a 19-year-old Martina Navratilova, yet to win the first of her 18 Grand Slam singles titles.
“I was 3-1 up in the final set and led 15-40 on her serve so I had two chances to go up a double break and I blew it and managed to lose the match. My coach was watching on TV and went mad on the phone,” Barker says.
“I really feel as if I threw this one away. It was a golden opportunity as I was having such a good summer, I was playing so well, I was so confident and it sort of came to a grinding halt. It’s a match that rankles with me as much as the semi-final loss the next year.”
Ah, that semi-final.
Of course Wimbledon 1977, in the Queen’s silver jubilee year, is best remembered for Virginia Wade’s home victory. But it could so easily have been another Briton.
“I can sum up my Wimbledon semi-final loss by saying I beat Betty Stove three weeks later for the loss of one game,” says Barker, who was beaten 6-4 2-6 6-4 by the Dutchwoman at SW19.
“I think that just about sums up how disappointed I was and how badly I played that day. It was all about pressure and expectation for me that day.”
“I was 3-1 head-to-head with Virginia that year and I suddenly sat in the Wimbledon locker room thinking ‘I could win it’, because I knew I could beat Betty – I didn’t think I’d ever lost to her. I think I just took my mind off the semi-final, thinking too much that I was going to play Virginia.
“I just played a really horrible match from start to finish, I can’t be any more blunt than that. And I was bitterly, bitterly disappointed not to have been a part of that final, which would have been an amazing day with the jubilee and two Brits. I let the whole side down.”
Barker could not even bear to watch the final.
“It was too painful,” she says. “I think I went out shopping and spent a fortune on jewellery or something. I think Virginia made an absolute fortune and I lost a whole lot. I don’t think I’ve even got the jewellery, I’ve probably lost that as well!”
After that defeat she made one more Grand Slam semi-final at the Australian Open before injuries began to take hold.
“Of course, the shoes we were wearing didn’t have all the orthotics and stuff they have in them now and I got really bad shin splints and really bad Achilles injuries throughout the last two or three years of my career,” Barker says.
“The physios just couldn’t do anything about it – it was just rest back then, take a couple of aspirin and off you go. Those injuries I had – these days I’d probably be one week in the physio and back out there.”
Ultimately, they cut short her career at 29. The decision to retire left her “crying like a baby” and she had no plan B.
“I remember just sitting there thinking ‘now, what do I do?’ All my friends are on tour, I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, my parents are in Devon, and I thought ‘what’s next?’
“It was really quite a scary time because tennis had totally consumed me for so many years and then suddenly it’s like, hold on, this is real life now. Every day I’d had planned – practice, gym, physio, booking travel, booking hotels, watching videos of a player, everything was all geared around a tennis tournament and then suddenly it’s nothing.”
Retirement prompted lots of messages from friends and journalists, which Barker couldn’t bring herself to reply to. But then there was one from someone calling themselves ‘Gordon Bennett’.
Convinced it was a wind-up by someone simply expressing astonishment at her announcement, she called him back. That call changed her life.
It turned out that Gordon Bennett was a real person – the boss of Australian television station Channel 7 no less – with a real job offer.
“If he’d been Gordon Smith, I’d probably have never got into broadcasting,” Barker says. “Because he was Gordon Bennett I phoned him. He then offered me a job on the spot and I accepted. I was just giggling after that, what a result that is.”
That job was for only eight weeks of the year, providing analysis during the winter tennis season in Australia, so she still needed another one. And that was how she found herself driving future British number one Tim Henman (then 10 years old) to and from school in a minibus for training at David Lloyd’s tennis club in London.
“I had eight tennis-playing boys in the back of the minibus. I was doing a bit of coaching and also tennis coaching holidays abroad. It was just keeping me busy.”
Barker’s first television presenting role came at BSkyB where she was the ‘continuity presenter’ – the person who talks between programmes telling you what’s coming up next. This provided, she says, the vital on-the-job training that taught her all the skills she would need for a career eventually fronting live BBC coverage of Wimbledon, the Olympics and many other events.
Her favourite presenting moments are Usain Bolt’s world records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the “magical” London 2012 opening ceremony.
Of course her Wimbledon role has given her plenty of opportunity to witness the evolution of the game and keep a close eye on today’s players.
So, does she wish she was playing tennis in today’s era instead?
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” she says. “I mean OK, I’d have loved to have earned the money that they’re earning but if I had the choice I’d go back and have the fun.
“I do stand at the court now thinking, ‘Wow, we never played like this’. It was a totally different game when we were playing with our wooden racquets and our Green Flash shoes and our balls out of the tennis box.
“But it’s very different today – the mistrust between the players and the press. Back in our day we got on with all of them.”
Barker is proud to have played during an era where there were big rivalries, such as the Evert-Navratilova dominance of the 1970s and 1980s, and thinks it is what the women’s game needs now.
And, from what she’s seen of the new generation coming through, she thinks they can deliver.
“This young generation with [US Open champion] Bianca Andreescu, Coco Gauff, [Australian Open champion] Sofia Kenin, the youngsters look the real deal to me. I’ve got a feeling they will be at the top of the game for a long time,” she says.
“Gauff has the ability to be the greatest player ever, even better than Serena Williams and I never thought I’d say that. Serena is without question the best so far. Coco has all the attributes – physically, mentally, she has the game. She’s going to be a superstar.
“If she can start winning Grand Slams by 18 then who knows how many she could win? We’re seeing Serena desperately trying to equal Margaret Court’s record [of 24 majors] – Coco could outdo that and I never thought that would happen.”
Of course, tennis actually needs to resume from its coronavirus break before any of this can happen and while Barker does not think the suspension of the season will have harmed players’ momentum or competitiveness, there could be some other changes.
The WTA said last week that when it resumes, players will only be able to have one person travelling with them to keep down numbers at tournaments and minimise the infection risk.
“I mean, can you imagine?” Barker says. “Who do they choose? Their coach, their masseur, their partner? If that is a rule, it’s going to be a tough decision for players. Who is the most important person?
“They’re all going ‘it’s unheard of’ – but that’s exactly what we did,” she laughs. “I didn’t even have anybody!”
And that turned out very nicely indeed.