Presenter John Inverdale has “explained” why he got into hot water when he said that Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli was “never going to be a looker” – he was suffering from hay fever.
Inverdale, 56, sparked a furore last summer when he made the comment about the appearance of the French player, who had just won the 2013 ladies final.
The presenter, who has now signed up with Bartoli, 29, to commentate for ITV on the French Open, told Radio Times magazine that as well as feeling unwell, he was attempting to fill time.
“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,” he said.
“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 added: “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.”
Inverdale said that he knew that he had committed a gaffe but that his BBC training meant that he did not say sorry.
“It was drummed into us over and again: never explain, never apologise, because if you do you’ll dig an even bigger hole,” he told the magazine. ” So I thought, ‘I’ll just keep going and hope nobody heard it’.”
The sports broadcaster said that he “was horrified” for Bartoli that, “at her moment of triumph”, there was “some idiot distraction”.
He said of apologising to the tennis player at the Wimbledon 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.”
He dismissed then Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s intervention – she wrote to BBC director general Lord Hall about his remark – as “political opportunism”.
And he added: “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.”
Bartoli told the magazine that she was not bothered by the comment.
“I’d won Wimbledon,” she said. “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.”
She added: “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….
“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.”
The BBC received around 700 complaints after Inverdale questioned, on Radio 5 Live, whether Bartoli’s father had told her, when she was younger, that she was never going to be a “looker…a Sharapova… you’re never going to be 5ft 11in, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that”.
The presenter later attempted to clarify the “ham-fisted” comment and said that he had written to Bartoli to apologise for using a “clumsy phrase”.