How tennis coach Arthur Roberts set Sue Barker on on her incredible journey

Corinne Molesworth in May, 1969. Photo: PA

Corinne Molesworth in May, 1969. Photo: PA - Credit: Archant

In 1966 a ten-year-old student at Paignton’s Marist Convent was chosen as the second of two schoolgirls to receive tennis coaching from Arthur Roberts at the Palace Hotel in Torquay.

Realising her potential, Roberts agreed to continue her development beyond his original commitment and thus Sue Barker was set on her incredible journey which was to bring success in her sport and a phenomenal television career.

The Paignton youngster found Roberts a stern taskmaster, as she recalled in an interview with Brian Viner in 1999.

“Everyone was terrified of him. My parents weren’t allowed to watch me practise and he would brook no interference whatever,” she said.

Indeed, when a visiting LTA coach advised a young Barker to change her forehand saying that she played it too close to her body, Roberts was not happy as he regarded it the strongest weapon in her armoury, describing it as ‘especially potent’.

Having told her to ignore the visitor’s advice, he later resigned from the LTA Coaches’ Association in protest at the interference!

And famously, when Barker left to play tournaments on the Continent he would only give her a one-way ticket telling her that she had to earn her fare home!

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It would be wrong to suggest that Roberts produced the finished article through his coaching, which often used psychology as a motivating force. His role was to point his young stars in the right direction and to arm them with the basic tools with which to progress.

Mike Sangster, for example, was coached by Australian George Worthington when he achieved his greatest successes and after the death of his mentor at the age of only 36 in 1964 Sangster was never the same player.

Roberts recognised that, in Barker, he had an extraordinary young talent who by the age of 16 had reached 21st in the WTA rankings. To continue her development, he told her, she should relocate to the United States.

“I was so excited,” she said later. “I remember my parents seeing me off on the platform at Paignton station. My mum was crying and I was trying to cry, but I couldn’t. I was just thinking of California.”

By her 17th birthday she had joined Mark McCormack’s management agency IMG which provided her with a furnished townhouse in Newport Beach, just south of Los Angeles.

One day, one of her neighbours saw her practising and asked if he could hit with her the following morning. The neighbour? Only the man considered by John McEnroe to be the greatest tennis player who ever lived - Rod Laver.

A year later Barker won her first top-level singles title and, in 1975, reached her first Grand Slam semi-final at the Australian Open. The following year she won the German Open, defeating Czech Renata Tomanova 6-3, 6-1.

It was in 1976 that she achieved the biggest victory of her career when, aged just 20, she beat Tomanova to take the French Open having battled brilliantly to come from behind in her quarter-final against Regina Marsikova to take a gruelling final set 8-6.

Singles titles in San Francisco and Dallas followed and in 1977, she beat Martina Navratilova to reach the Virginia Slims Tour Championships final where she lost in three sets to Chris Evert.

That year, however, also brought the greatest disappointment of Barker’s career where she seemed destined to meet Virginia Wade in the Wimbledon final. Alas, an unexpected semi-final defeat by the Netherlands’ Betty Stove denied her that opportunity.

In a professional career which ended in 1984 Barker won 15 singles titles and 12 doubles titles, posting wins over the best women’s players of her era - Evert, Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Evonne Goolagong, Tracy Austin, Wade, Maria Bueno, Rosemary Casals, Andrea Jaeger and Pam Shriver.

In a 2004 interview recalling her French Open victory, she said: “I’m still incredibly proud of what I achieved.”

Barker has, of course, gone on to achieve remarkable success as a TV presenter of great charm, professionalism and wit. She is to Wimbledon coverage what Gary Lineker is to Match of the Day and as quizmaster on Question of Sport has enabled the programme to reach beyond a purely sporting audience.

There will be few people in the entire nation to whom Sue Barker is not instantly recognisably.

In direct contrast, however, Arthur Roberts is an enigmatic figure. An internet search reveals very few clues as to anything about the man, other than those well documented successes with his trio of champions.

I spent many hours in his company over the years but talk was always of Torquay United, tennis and the progress of his young protégés like Torquay’s Christina Harris and Corinne Molesworth of Brixham, an extremely talented player whose successes were somewhat overshadowed by his three better known stars.

It’s worth noting here that Molesworth was an outstanding young talent, winning the junior singles’ title at the French Championships in 1967 and five years later reaching the quarter finals of the French Open where she lost to No 1 seed Evonne Goolagong. It was Goolagong who halted the Brixham girl’s best run at Wimbledon four years later, beating her in straight sets in the third round.

Molesworth played in three US Opens and represented Britain against the United States in the Wightman Cup of 1972, losing her singles in three sets against Patti Hogan.

Next week, I remember when the Palace Hotel annually hosted one of the most important tournaments in the sporting calendar - and played host to one of the greatest players of all time.