So long Sue: Wimbledon will deeply miss Barker’s iconic warmth and skill

IIt was perhaps the biggest miss on center court of this tournament. Nick Kyrgios had finished his anarchic, anger-fueled third-round win over Stefanos Tsitsipas and was about to address the crowd. There was only one person who could take it in that state of mind. A woman with the moral strength and laser-like empathy to cut through her layers of bravado and commune directly with her soul. The Wimbledon Wonder, aka White Steel, aka Sue Barker.

Unfortunately, omnipresence isn’t one of Barker’s many superpowers. Confined to the studio, she could only comment from afar on Kyrgios’ performance – “the swear, Tracy” – then let us know that Casualty will follow in a few minutes. Which, given what we had just witnessed, looked like a coded message.

When Barker retires on Sunday, she leaves big tennis shoes to fill. BBC producers know this; you could tell by the way they held her back on day one, giving her chosen replacement, Isa Guha, the first bite of the strawberry, in an attempt to avoid comparisons. We only saw Barker on our screens in the early evening, when she produced one of her effortless summaries of the game around the pitch, paused to comment on a live match point, then s is seamlessly streaked between Emma Raducanu and Andy Murray’s matches.

Who else could have had a chat with Chris Evert on the pitch that went straight to his ovarian cancer and still kept the vibe going? Who else could have made a new wave of British hopefuls – including surprise semi-finalist Cameron Norrie – so comfortable in the sudden spotlight?

“One of her greatest skills is always being relaxed and putting guests at ease,” says Annabel Croft, who first met Barker when she was asked to knock with her at Wimbledon like a teenager. “She understands the emotions, the thoughts, all the ups and downs and navigates her way through the pressure moments of a game. She asks the right questions.”

Sue Barker and Serena Williams
Wimbledon won’t be the same without Sue Barker’s ‘beautiful moments’. Photography: Visionhaus/Corbis/Getty Images

This Wimbledon fortnight seemed as suited to Sue as her signature blazers. There was the grand setting to celebrate 100 years of Center Court, where her former boyfriend Cliff Richard sang a song and her work husband John McEnroe teased her about it. There were giggles with Caroline Wozniacki on the roof terrace after the former world No.1 suffered a fit of sneezing in the open air. And there was Ons Jabeur, sharing the applause for their victory in the semi-finals with her adversary and best friend, Tatjana Maria. “It’s just really beautiful moments like this that mean so much at Wimbledon,” Sue said, a rare emotion in her voice.

Barker’s broadcasting colleagues have shamelessly asked him to reconsider his decision to hang up his microphone, and John Lloyd, a man sensitive enough to shed tears at the Friends reunion, is stocking up on tissues for their final evening together. She is, he says, irreplaceable: “No one is better in their field. If there was a ranking list for streaming, it would be #1.”

The reason Barker remains so beloved is that she never gives the impression that she’s anything more than a friend of the family. “She’s got a great sense of humor, she likes to gossip, she’s no frills,” says Lloyd, who likes to compare her to Rod Laver. “You talk to him and you’d think he just won three or four tournaments at his local park. Sue is the same way.

Few of Barker’s peers would have chosen a television career for her when she started her stride 30 years ago. “Did I see her becoming this broadcast icon?” said Lloyd. “Quite frankly, no.”

Convent-educated, she was wise on and off the court (“I wouldn’t say I had talent,” she told a BBC interviewer after winning the 1976 French Open) . Her good friend Evert asked her about the turnaround this week. “How did you get so smart?” You never said a word when you were a tennis pro.

Andy Murray summed up Sue Barker's interviewing craft by saying talking to her was like talking to her mother.
Andy Murray summed up Sue Barker’s interviewing craft by saying talking to her was like talking to her mother. Photography: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Lloyd, who was living in America when Barker was learning her craft with Sky, returned to the UK to find a polished performer. His preference for working without Autocue still leads other broadcasters to treat Barker as a minor miracle. “They’re all amazed to see this amazing presenter who doesn’t read lines, who does everything on the spur of the moment.”

With her traveling fraternity of Tracy Austin and Virginia Wade, Barker created space for women in sports broadcasting long before they were commonplace, her quick wit and easy conversation offering a real alternative to the previously relentless one-upmanship of masculine sports jokes – as Croft puts it, “his bubbly personality shone through”. And while Barker never promoted women’s tennis above men’s tennis, she certainly elevated it with her passion and expertise.

It’s generally modest that Barker’s favorite Wimbledon memories don’t include her own successes: but they do include moments she’ll always remember, her post-final talks with Andy Murray, who returned from defeat to Roger Federer in the from the 2012 final to take the title the following year. Barker’s warmth made her the perfect candidate to handle these two most tender moments in the young Scotsman’s life. “It was torture to watch,” she said of her nerve-wracking but decisive match against Novak Djokovic in 2013. “Imagine playing it,” he joked.

Murray summed it up last week when he said talking to Barker was like talking to his mother. In three decades, it has become as essential to the comfort of the British nation as the Rich Tea biscuit. “She’s such a big part of the cover that you can’t imagine Wimbledon without her,” Croft says.

But from Monday we will have to do it. Ladies and gentlemen, may we introduce you to the Wimbledon champion for 2022: Sue Barker.

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