It helps that she knows what she’s talking about. This rare thing, a British Grand Slam winner – even if she says it herself, with typical self-mockery, in another era – she understands the meaning of Wimbledon from both sides: as an observer and a participant. But the last thing she would do is brag about her own success. Apparently devoid of ego, she is the audiovisual inverse of Piers Morgan: it is never about her, always about current competitors.
Admittedly, as a tennis evangelist, she tends to look on the bright side. The issues and controversies she prefers to leave to others. He’s not the Jeremy Paxman of Center Court, his talks with attendees tend to be benevolent and sympathetic rather than inquisitive and investigative. But that doesn’t mean she can’t deliver compelling pieces. His interview with Emma Raducanu last year, after the 18-year-old succumbed to a stomach ailment in the round of 16, demonstrated that empathy can sometimes do more than confrontation. While McEnroe had fumed in the studio about Raducanu’s apparent mental frailty, Barker was just plain sweet. And it worked. It was a beautiful bit of television, complete with her motherly advice:
“From experience, don’t read anything, stay focused.”
For three decades, it has been like that: scholarly, clear, welcoming. And at Wimbledon, she has the perfect stage. Not least because, unlike most live sporting event hosts, she has become part of the occasion for those attending the live event as much as those watching at home. No one at a big football game will see Gary Lineker as he hides in a box at the stadium. But Barker is there on center court, interviewing the winners and losers live, her goal always to let them shine rather than steal the moment for herself (her conversation with a tearful Andy Murray after losing to Roger Federer in the final in 2012 minus an interview, rather a therapy session), then his triumphant return 12 months later.