How the Paignton Peach became the face of Wimbledon

Kate Battersby says it is about time Sue Barker is given the credit she deserves

It is an oddity of Sue Barker’s serial careers in tennis and television that she is frequently discussed in terms of who or what she is not. 

Hence she did not win Wimbledon, or “even” reach the widely forecast all-British final against ultimate champion Virginia Wade in 1977; she never went higher than the world number three ranking she reached at the age of 21; as a presenter, she is not lauded in the same breath as, say, national treasure Clare Balding. 

Time to redress the balance.

Would that a British woman now were “merely” the world number three. Laura Robson and Heather Watson are rightly applauded for their mutual presence in the top 50, but neither is in imminent danger of repeating Barker’s Grand Slam semi-finals in Australia and at Wimbledon, and certainly not her Grand Slam win at the French Open in 1976 – a prize which, typically, did not even place her in the top three in the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year.

But perhaps least celebrated is her tenure in front of the BBC cameras at Wimbledon. She was first part of the Corporation’s presenting team there 20 years ago, assuming the chief presenter’s mantle from broadcasting titan Des Lynam in 1997. 

She won the Royal Television Society’s best sports presenter award – the proverbial “Oscar” – in 2001, and has anchored the Grand National, world athletics, winter and summer Olympics, and Sports Personality of the Year, not to mention 16 years of
A Question Of Sport. She is quite clearly one of the BBC’s top three sports presenters.

Imminent retirement 

Next month she will once again steer the nation through Wimbledon, yet for at least eight years observers have been forecasting her imminent “retirement”. 

It is said that Generation Murray does not relate to her – although surely that says more about them than Barker. For it is possibly among her most significant achievements that she is that rarest sight on British television – a woman presenter of comparative age. 

Her current mark of 57 is hardly geriatric, besides which she looks great. But as early as 49 her age was publicly remarked upon as being extraordinary for a presenter – by which, of course, what was meant is extraordinary for a woman presenter.

No doubt this is all in the nature of television; the response of us, the viewers, is not always what the programme-makers would hope it to be, that our focus is not always quite on the big stories they wish to convey, but the irrelevant details we perceive. Does it matter? If it does, Barker has never gone on public record to complain about her lot.

Having started on the small screen on Australia’s Channel 7 in 1985 and journeyed via (what was then) British Sky Broadcasting to arrive at the nation’s premier broadcaster, she appears to be among those television professionals who is simply grateful for all that life has brought her. 

Even her domestic life has long been the stuff of contented tranquillity; after early romantic skirmishes with Australian tennis player Syd Ball, golfer Greg Norman and even Cliff Richard, she celebrates her silver wedding anniversary this summer to ex-policeman Lance Tankard. Their home in 26 prime Surrey acres is the stuff of a Hollywood location scout’s dream

A key face 

Meanwhile, the “Paignton Peach”, as she was named in her playing days, remains one of the key faces of the BBC; her signature good cheer forever in evidence, apparently unperturbed by the latest rumour-du-jour

Ironically, it is said her television career led to the only occasion she has picked up the Venus Rosewater Dish, when the Wimbledon women’s singles trophy was in the BBC studio with her. A photograph of her brandishing the salver in an off-air moment hangs on a wall at home. It takes a certain contentment and peace of mind to do that.

As we watch her this summer, two decades after she first joined the BBC Wimbledon team, we might do well to remember that you simply don’t get to front 20 years of prime-time television by accident. It only happens when the presenter in question is outstandingly good. Sue Barker is that presenter. And she isn’t done yet.

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