• Rewind to 1976

A Question of Chance

ESPN staff
May 26, 2010
Sue Barker is the last British women to win the French Open © Getty Images

Nowadays she is better known as the face of A Question of Sport, but in 1976 Sue Barker was the darling of British tennis after winning the French Open.

With the world No. 1 and two-time defending champion player, Chris Evert not in the draw, the 20-year-old Sue Barker, who had only made her debut at Roland Garros the year previously, was on the verge of her first Grand Slam title.

Unlike the majority of British players, Barker was at home on the clay. And as the top seed, Barker was flying high after winning the German Open in Hamburg the fortnight previously.

However, Barker's route to victory was made easier by the absence of a host of big names, including Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Evonne Goolagong-Cawley. The European clay-court season had been in decline since the introduction of the more lucrative World Team Tennis, championed by King. Even Barker's fellow Brit, the New-York-based Virginia Wade had signed up to play Team Tennis in the US.

Barker herself signed up for the event the following year, but she is adamant that the absence of the defending champion and other high-profile names did not take away from the triumph of winning her first, and only, Grand Slam title.

"You can only beat who is there and at the end there was the French Open title waiting to be won," she said. "I had beaten all the top players during that time anyway, so it does not matter that I didn't do it at that tournament. I'm still incredibly proud of what I achieved."

Barker cruised through her opening two matches against Australia's Nerida Gregory and Carmen Perea, before meeting the future wife of Bjorn Borg, Mariana Simeonescu, in the third round. After taking the first set, the Romanian battled her way back into the match before Barker wrapped up a 7-5 2-6 6-1 victory.

And she was to have to step it up another gear against her quarter-final opponent. After going a set down against the Czechoslovakian Regina Marsikova, Barker had to dig deep to level the scores and take the match to a decider. It was a gruelling final set, and Barker eventually triumphed 8-6.

"That was the point at which I really started to think about winning the whole thing," Barker said.

Next up was another Romanian, Virginia Ruzici, and after a 6-3 1-6 6-2 victory, Barker reached the final, and only one match stood in the way of claiming her maiden Grand Slam title. Her opponent was the unseeded Renata Tomanova, who had reached the Australian Open final in January, losing to Evonne Goolagong-Cawley.

Sue Barker never reached another Grand Slam final © Getty Images

On the morning of the final, Barker was overcome by terrible nerves, and had no appetite. " I went down to breakfast and I couldn't eat, so I went to practise and I just couldn't get a ball in court," she said. "I suppose it must be true that if you have a bad practice, you'll probably have a good match!"

However, as the players made their way out onto Court Centrale, Barker had the edge, having beaten Tomanova two weeks earlier in the final in Hamburg. The nerves seemed to have disappeared as Barker confidently took the opening set 6-2. But then disaster struck as she failed to win a single game in the second set.

To make matters worse, the players were forced to take a break at the end of the first set, and with no coach, Barker was forced to dwell on the events of the second set. Fortunately, a chance encounter with Tony Mottram, coach to another British player Michelle Tyler, helped settle her nerves, and she was able to recapture the form she showed in the opening set, and took the match 6-2 0-6 6-2.

But there were no wild celebrations for Barker, who never reached another Grand Slam final.

"Had I known that I would never win another one, I probably would have gone out and painted Paris red," Barker said. "As it was, I did my press conference, had some champagne with some of the British journalists and then flew home to see my Mum and Dad - not very glamorous!"

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