Sue Barker reveals old tennis coach secretly returned her cash gifts

Camilla Tominey
·4-min read
The former tennis ace star revealed the heartwarming generosity of her former coach Arthur Roberts - Mike Brett/Popperfoto 
The former tennis ace star revealed the heartwarming generosity of her former coach Arthur Roberts - Mike Brett/Popperfoto

She was once the darling of British tennis, winning 15 WTA Tour singles titles and the French Open in 1976 before becoming one of our best known sports presenters.

But the extraordinary story behind the man who set Sue Barker on the road to sporting stardom has not been told until now. 

The former tennis ace, now 64, has revealed for the first time the heartwarming generosity of her former coach Arthur Roberts, who trained her as a child free of charge.

Not only that, but when Ms Barker hit the big time and insisted on paying him back what she felt she owed, he simply returned the money to her father so it could be invested on her behalf.

It was only years later that the star turned broadcaster realised the truth, when dividends began landing on her doorstep from the investments Mr Roberts had arranged for her. 

Speaking to current female British number one Johanna Konta’s podcast, the Question of Sport host disclosed how she received years of free training from Mr Roberts because her parents could not afford to pay for her lessons.

Explaining how she got her lucky break growing up in Torbay, Devon, she said: “There just happened to be a tennis coach in Torquay that had already coached a French Open champion and a Wimbledon semi-finalist, and he was looking for two players to take on.  

“I was lucky, I was only the second one he chose so I very nearly missed out.  My parents couldn’t afford to pay for coaching - I was the youngest of three kids - so he took me under his wing and he only charged me £1 for the very first meeting I ever had with him. He refused any money.  If it hadn't have been for him I’d never have had my tennis career.”

After a successful playing career, Barker went on to become host of a Question of Sport - BBC
After a successful playing career, Barker went on to become host of a Question of Sport - BBC

Miss Barker went on to explain how she offered to pay Mr Roberts back after she started making “good money” as she rose through the rankings to become world number three.

 “I was earning a couple of hundred thousand a year which back in the 1970s was huge,” she admitted. 

“I said: ‘I really wanna pay you some money back for all that you did for me’.”

Mr Roberts reluctantly agreed and so Miss Barker paid him different sums over the course of the next few years until she retired in 1984. 

What she hadn’t realised is that Mr Roberts had given all the money straight back to her father.

“Everything I’d given him he got my father to invest for me,” she said. “So suddenly like 10 years later, then 20 years later, then 25 years later, these bonds suddenly appeared.  

“A letter arrived on my doorstep and this money. I thought, ‘Where does this money come from?’. He invested the money that I’d given him. So he ended up making me even more money.” She did not disclose the precise amount.  

“He was just the most wonderful man, and without him I just wouldn’t have been able to do it, and without tennis I wouldn’t have had the second career (as a presenter) either,” she added.   

“Sometimes it’s just being in the right place at the right time, and meeting the right people.”

Describing Mr Roberts as “so, so special to me and such an amazing coach”, she said:  “Sometimes you don’t realise it until later on.  I knew he was fabulous and that, but I just didn’t realise how fabulous he was until later on. He coached me for nothing, but then to do that...it was almost like he continued to want me to excel in life, and he didn’t want the money.  He was really an incredible man. Then getting into television has been such a joy.”  

Miss Barker, who dated the singer Cliff Richard from 1982 to 1986, initially joined Australia’s Channel 7 as a commentator and sports presenter before going on to anchor tennis for British Sky Broadcasting in 1990. She joined the Wimbledon coverage on BBC in 1993 and now anchors the two-week long broadcast for the network.

She married landscape gardener and former policeman Lance Tankard in 1988 and the couple live in Gloucestershire.