1. She was an unexpected youngest child
Sue was born in 1956 to Bob and Betty in Paignton, Devon but as she recounts, she wasn’t the longed-for third child as her parents had planned to stop at two.
I really salute them in giving me my tennis career as well, because they couldn’t afford even to buy me a tennis racquet
Sue Barker on her parents
“My dad particularly,” says Sue. “He worked really hard, but they just budgeted for two kids, and they didn’t have a lot of money left over. And then a few months after my brother was born suddenly Mum was pregnant again.”
Laughing, Sue adds: “She always said, ‘I really, I didn’t, I didn’t want you, I feel so bad about it’. But my mum and I had the most wonderful relationship. They [had to] cut corners, which is why I really salute them in giving me my tennis career as well because they couldn’t afford even to buy me a tennis racquet. It was a huge thing because if you have three children, you can’t favour one.”
2. Her father enjoyed an active lifestyle. Her mother less so…
There was a 16-year gap in Sue’s parents’ ages and her dad was in his 50s when she was born.
“I never ever thought he was an older dad,” says Sue. “He was fit and healthy. I mean even while he was in his 60s, we were climbing Haytor on Dartmoor together, waving to Mum… and he was a wonderful, wonderful dad.”
Betty, Sue’s mum, lived to the age of 100, although a healthy lifestyle was never a priority for her:
“Not at all,” says Sue. “She wasn’t known as Betty Six Gins for nothing! Every time the clock ticked up to 6 o’clock, the gin and tonic would come out.”
“But also, everything she’d eat was wrong. I keep looking at food and trying different diets and how to be healthy. My mum – everything was white bread, processed meats, no water, never drank water, and she lived to 100, so maybe we’re all getting it wrong,” Sue laughs.
3. A PE teacher provided vital early encouragement on the tennis court
Sue recalls that she fell in love with tennis at the age of six or seven: “My sister Jane had started playing, and I said, ‘Can I come and play?’ and she goes: ‘No, but you can get down the other end and just send the balls back to me.’ So I used to try and get down the other and try and hit the balls back over to her.”
“It wasn’t until I met my PE teacher at my junior school, Mrs Chadwick – who was wonderful – and she used to stay behind at school and do little tests for me because via the Lawn Tennis Association, young kids, if you hit 20 balls over the net without a mistake, or if you got seven serves in without missing one, you’d get a little certificate. And she made me take all of these tests and it just made me want more because I wanted the next certificate, I wanted to keep improving.”
4. Some of her most vocal early fans were nuns
Sue moved to a convent school, where the nuns would attend her matches to lend their support. “They weren’t afraid to give it some, they were shouting and screaming and then they would say: ‘We’re praying for you, Sue.’”
“It didn’t do my street cred a huge amount [of good],” says Sue, “when I arrived in the minibus getting out with all these nuns around me. But they were wonderful… they used to give me afternoons off and even weeks off. Even my O-Levels I took in November, not in the summer, so I could go off and play tennis. I wouldn’t have had a career if those nuns hadn’t given me that time off.”