Well, this could be awkward. I’m in a hotel room with BBC sports presenter John Inverdale and the 2013 Wimbledon ladies singles champion Marion Bartoli. They’re ensconced on a sofa and given their proximity I wonder if she might be about to bop him over the head several times with her tennis racket.
Many would say it’s no less than he deserves, following his comments ahead of the women’s final last year as the 28-year-old Frenchwoman prepared to power her way to victory, 6–1, 6–4, over Sabine Lisicki. Inverdale’s thoughts, shared with Radio 5 Live listeners, were: “I just wonder if her dad did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14: ‘Listen, you’re never going to be a looker, you are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you’re never going to be 5ft 11, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that. You are going to have to be the most dogged, determined fighter that anyone has ever seen on the tennis court if you are going to make it.’ And she kind of is.”
A furore ensued. More than 700 people complained to the BBC, some demanding that Inverdale be sacked, while even the Culture Secretary Maria Miller waded in, expressing her anger at his remarks in a letter to BBC director-general Tony Hall.
Yet here Inverdale and Bartoli are, nearly a year on, bantering like old friends – although their encounter is not, it must be said, accidental. In what could be a stroke of marketing genius, ITV has signed them up to commentate on the French Open – Bartoli won’t be playing as she retired in August. This is their first meeting since the Wimbledon champions’ dinner, where Inverdale made a point of seeking her out, following his letter of apology, to make another in person (of which more later).
If ITV’s executives were hoping for tension, however, they’ll be disappointed, for an hour in the pair’s company suggests there really are no hard feelings. Bartoli spends much of it in peals of laughter as Inverdale recalls the incident uncomfortably, while he in turn teases her about “terrible double standards” when she admits that one of the highlights of winning Wimbledon was getting to meet her own heroes, the Marseilles football team, and enjoying the sight of their “20 hot bodies”. “I’m sorry,” he says in mock indignation. “Is she allowed to say that?”
Still, let’s turn back the clock to 6 July last year, and ask Inverdale what on earth he was thinking. “I was feeling so ill that day, I had terrible hay fever and all I could think of was that I wanted to go home to bed. I had Andy Murray in the final the next day, I knew I had to be on form. Your mind is going all over the place, we’re on air from 12 noon till 7pm with not a single word written and you’ve got to fill the time,” he says. “I’m not making excuses here, just trying to explain. And I was going to say that in your early years, you’re dealt a set of cards. And actually I was going to use the phrase ‘physical attributes’ and then – and remember, you’re thinking all this in a split second – I thought, ‘No, don’t say that’. And then I said something far worse.”
With 30 years in the commentator’s seat behind him, he knew immediately he’d made an awful gaffe, but his BBC training kicked in. “It was drummed into us over and again: never explain, never apologise, because if you do you’ll dig an even bigger hole. So I thought, ‘I’ll just keep going and hope nobody heard it’.”
Of course, in the age of social media and iPlayer, there was no chance of that – although Bartoli herself didn’t learn of Inverdale’s remarks until the day after her victory, when she was asked about them at a press conference.
The question took her aback, she admits. “You have to remember that I had dreamt about winning Wimbledon for 20 years, and all of a sudden my dream was a reality. I was just so happy, I was flying,” she says. “So I was surprised by the question as I wasn’t in that place at all.”
Surprised and, surely, upset? She insists not. “I’d known John a long time, and I knew what he was trying to say. At the end of the day I am a tennis player, I know I’m not 6ft tall, I’m not the same long, lean shape as Maria Sharapova, but the beauty of tennis is that anyone can win, tall or short. Something the press took to be negative to me was a positive.
“Everyone starts with their own assets, not everyone is born the same way, but the point is that in sport – in life in general – the message is, if you have determination you can still make it happen. In my mind it was never really a story.”
Not even a twinge of hurt? “Look, I’d won Wimbledon,” she laughs. “That was always the most important thing. For a month and a half afterwards I was literally sleeping with my trophy just to make sure it was mine. That was all that was in my mind.”
And it was this, Inverdale interjects, that caused him the most angst. “I was horrified for Marion,” he says. ‘I understand how hard sports stars work to get to the top and at her moment of triumph the last thing she wanted was some idiot distraction.”
He made a point of seeking her out at the champions’ dinner. “I went up to say I was sorry and her exact words to me were, ‘Don’t worry about that, what do you think of my heels?’ And I said, ‘They look great.’ Which they did.” If there was no bad blood between them, though, the same can’t be said of the wider public. The story continued to make headlines for more than two weeks. “It wasn’t much fun,” he admits. “I thought like a tide it would just go out – but the thing about tides is that they keep coming back.”
Nonetheless, he dismisses Miller’s manoeuvre as “political opportunism… It would be naive to assume there wasn’t an anti-BBC agenda, too, which was another opportunity to beat the BBC with a stick – and it was a big stick.”
Beside him, Bartoli snorts with laughter.
French Open Tennis coverage starts on Sunday at 9:30am on ITV4 and 2:45pm on ITV3.