It was possibly the biggest miss on Centre Court this tournament. Nick Kyrgios had completed his anarchic, anger-fuelled third-round win against Stefanos Tsitsipas and was about to address the crowd. There was only one person who could take him on in this mood. One woman with the moral strength and the laser-empathy to cut through his layers of bravado and commune directly with his soul. The Wimbledon Wonder, aka White Steel, aka Sue Barker.
Unfortunately, omnipresence is not one of Barker’s many superpowers. Confined to the studio, she could only pass comment on Kyrgios’s performance from afar – “the swearing, Tracy” – then warn us that Casualty would be following in a few minutes. Which, given what we had just witnessed, sounded like a coded message.
When Barker retires on Sunday, she leaves some big tennis shoes to fill. The BBC producers know it; you could tell from the way they held her back on day one, giving her replacement-elect, Isa Guha, first bite of the strawberry, aiming to avoid comparisons. We didn’t see Barker on our screens until early evening, when she produced one of her effortless summaries of the play around the grounds, paused to commentate on a live match point, then seamlessly segued between the Emma Raducanu and Andy Murray matches.
Who else could have done a court-side chat with Chris Evert that went straight in on her ovarian cancer and still kept the mood high? Who else could have made a new wave of British hopefuls – including the surprise semi-finalist Cameron Norrie – so comfortable under the sudden spotlight?
“One of her greatest skills is always being relaxed and making guests feel at ease,” says Annabel Croft, who first met Barker when she was invited to hit with her at Wimbledon as a teenager. “She understands emotions, thoughts, all the ups and downs and navigating your way through the pressure moments of a match. She asks the right questions.”
This Wimbledon fortnight has seemed as tailored for Sue as her signature blazers. There was the big set piece to celebrate 100 years of Centre Court, where her one-time boyfriend Cliff Richard sang a song and her work husband John McEnroe teased her about it. There’s been giggling with Caroline Wozniacki on the roof terrace after the former world No 1 suffered an attack of sneezing on air. And there’s been Ons Jabeur, sharing the applause for her semi-final victory with her opponent and best friend, Tatjana Maria. “It’s just lovely, lovely moments like this that mean so much at Wimbledon,” said Sue, a rare wobble of emotion in her voice.
Barker’s broadcasting colleagues have unashamedly asked her to reverse the decision to hang up her mic, and John Lloyd, a man sensitive enough to have shed tears at the Friends reunion, is stockpiling hankies for their final evening together. She is, he says irreplaceable: “No one is better in her field. If there was a ranking list for broadcasting, she’d be No 1.”
The reason Barker remains so beloved is that she never gives the impression that she is anything more than a friend of the family. “She’s got a great sense of humour, she likes gossip, there’s no airs about her,” says Lloyd, who likes to compare her with Rod Laver. “You talk to him and you’d think he’s just won three or four tournaments at his local park. Sue’s the same way.”
Few of Barker’s playing peers would have picked a TV career for her when she began her beat 30 years ago. “Did I see that she’d become this icon of broadcasting?” says Lloyd. “Quite frankly, no.”
Convent-educated, she was demure on and off court (“I wouldn’t say I was talented,” she told a BBC interviewer after winning the 1976 French Open). Her good friend Evert interrogated her regarding the turnaround this week. “How did you get so smart? You never said a word when you were a tennis pro.”
Lloyd, who lived in America when Barker was learning her craft with Sky, returned to the UK to find a polished performer. Her preference to work without Autocue still causes fellow broadcasters to treat Barker like a minor miracle. “They’re all staggered to see this amazing presenter who doesn’t read lines, who does it all off the cuff.”
With her travelling sisterhood of Tracy Austin and Virginia Wade, Barker carved out a space for women in sports broadcasting long before they were commonplace, her quick wit and easy conversation providing a genuine alternative to the previously relentless one-upmanship of male sporting banter – as Croft puts it, “her bubbly personality shone through”. And while Barker has never promoted women’s tennis above men’s, she has certainly elevated it with her passion and expertise.
It is typically modest that Barker’s favourite Wimbledon memories do not include her own successes: but they do feature moments she will always be remembered for, her post-final interviews with Andy Murray, who returned from defeat against Roger Federer in the 2012 final to take the title the following year. Barker’s warmth made her the ideal candidate to handle these two most tender moments in the young Scotsman’s life. “It was torturous to watch,” she said of his nervy yet decisive game against Novak Djokovic in 2013. “Imagine playing it,” he quipped back.
Murray summed it up last week when he said talking to Barker was like chatting to his mum. Over three decades she has become as vital to the comfort of the British nation as the Rich Tea biscuit. “She’s such a part of the coverage you can’t imagine Wimbledon without her,” says Croft.
But from Monday, we shall have to. Ladies and gentlemen, may we present the Wimbledon champion for 2022: Sue Barker.