Evonne Goolagong

From Love Thirty: Three Decades of Champions, by Rex Bellamy

Evonne Fay Goolagong had two unusual names. The Evonne happened because her mother wanted something different, instead of the familiar French spelling. Goolagong means ‘tall trees by still water”. Her father was an itinerant sheep shearer and farm hand and she was one of eight children brought up in the bush: the rolling wheat and sheep country noth of the Murrumbidgee River. They lived in a tin shack on the outskirts of Barellan and were the only Aboriginal family in the vicinity. Fishing for yabbies, small crayfish, was fun for the children? But there was no money to throw around and they were a long way frol the tennis scene. They were a long way from most scenes.
It might have stayed that way – goodness knows what Goolagong would have been doing now – but for a local initiative that produced the War Memorial Club, equipped with four tennis courts. That happened in 1956 when Goolagong was five years old. The courts could not have been nearer home and within a couple of years she was acquiring a taste for the game.

Destinity took her by the hand again when London-born Vic Edwards, who ran a huge coaching operation from Sydney, was induced to include Barellan in his network of week-long tennis schools held in bush towns while children were on holiday. The two coaches assigned to Barellan insisted that Edwards himself should have a look at Goolagong and he flew hundreds of miles to do so. Edwards was impressed by her movements, reactions, and ball sense – that innate judgement of a ball’s speed and bounce on which timing depends.
She was nine then. Two years later she made her first trip to Sydney for intensive coaching and at 13, in 1965, she moved in with the Edwards family. Edwards became her legal guardian, assuming responsibility for her education on and off court. But Goolagaong retained close ties with her own family and with Barellan, where local residents dipped into their pockets to subsidize her career. She was already winning age-group championships and in 1970 she became Australian junior champion without losing a set and went on her first overseas tour. Edwards, a hearty bear of a man, was to travel with her as coach, manager, and surrogate father until 1976, by which time Goolagong had matured and married and was assuming an independent life style.

Edwards thought she could win Wimbledon in 1974. But in 1971 Goolagong surprised him. She surprised everybody. In January she led Margaret Court 5-2 in the third set of the Australian final but was afflicted by cramp and could no longer do the running Court demanded of her. A month later she beat Court in the Victorian final. Over to Europe, where Goolagong won the French championship at the first attempt without conceding a set and then beat Nancy Richey, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court in consecutive matches to become Wimbledon champion. At the age of 19, on her second trip overseas, the brown-skinned lass from a tin shack in a bush town had won two of the game’s four major titles.

Evonne Goolagong, Wimbledon 1971

Goolagong did not find it easy to build on that, partly because her toughest rivals had worked out how to play her, partly because her game veered wildly between splendour and mediocrity, and partly because she was not greedy for glory. She lost 11 of the 18 Grand Slam finals she played. That was hardly surprising, because the players who beat her were King (four times), Court and Chris Evert (three each), and Virginia Wade. At the same time one could not resist a frivolous line of logic: Goolagong loved playing tennis, had to win in order to enjoy another match in the next round, but was deprived of that incentive whenever she reached a final. She was a determined competitor but tended to value the game more than the prize. She was not in the same class as King, Court and Evert when it came to a concentrated, total commitment to success.

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Mats Wilander, Australian Open 1988

By Rex Bellamy, The Times, January 25, 1988

Mats Wilander took four hours and 28 minutes to beat Pat Cash 6-3, 6-7, 3-6, 6-1, 8-6 yesterday in an exhilarating climax to the first Australian championships played in the new National Tennis Centre at Flinders Park. Wilander became the first player since Ken Rosewall to win the men’s title three times and the only overseas player ever to do so. The final was a great match. It also had a satisfying, if slightly peverse outcome. A week ago most people fancied Wilander’s chances less than those of Ivan Lendl or Cash – the men who, with Stefan Edberg, grabbed last year’s Grand Slam titles. “It’s a long time”, Wilander said, “since I saw the four top guys so intense about winning a Grand Slam tournament.” And when Cash beat Lendl in a semi-final for the second year running, it seemed that the dramatic convention would insist on an Australian champion in the brave new world of Flinders Park. It almost happened. Cash came within two points of winning.

But Wilander fooled them all: and did so with a beautifully-crafted, unflinchingly resolute performance. Nor did the public seem to mind. They were mostly behind Cash, a Melbourne man, whose fighting heart accepts no compromise between a VC and a blanket. But they like Wilander, too, partly because he has a more engaging, less peevish personality and partly because of his tennis. They know him well. They should do – this was the fifth consecutive Australian title won either by Wilander or another Swede, Edberg.

Wilander also had a noisy and demonstrative following: young Swedes with faces daubed in the national colours. Australians responded in kind. The sunlit, packed stadium raised images of some tribal festival. The roars of 15,000 voices rang and rang across the Yarra River, the Melbourne cricket ground, and the tower blocks of the city. Even the silences were punctuated by the strange sound of wind gurgling through the amplifying system.

Yes, it was windy. Often cloudy too. And the match was twice interrupted by rain: for 33 minutes when Wilander was 4-1 up in the second set (which he lost) and for 18 minutes when Cash had a break point for a 4-0 lead in the fourth set. Yet those breaks added fuel to the excitement rather than dousing it. They were conversational pauses in a feast we had no wish to finish.

For the first set and a half (and often thereafter) Wilander played what he thinks may have been the best tennis of his life. Cash was not serving well enough to earn himself easy volleys. Wilander’s service returns were superb – they remained so – and with nimble cunning he contained, teased and frustrated the net -rusher. Often Wilander went to the net himself, once startling the incoming volleyer by advancing to meet him. Wilander’s technical soundness and tactical variety were exemplary. One spectator kept shouting “Get him, Pat.” He might as well have asked the fish to hook the fisherman. There was nothing Cash could do from the baseline, especially with a shaky forehand, and for a time there was not a lot he could do from the forecourt. Then came the first break, in which the rain transformed the court into a shining green pool.

When play resumed, Wilander volleyed too often – and not well enough to avoid damaging counters. By contrast Cash began to serve well and also found a better length with his approach shots. That meant he had higher volleys to play, and plenty of chances to exploit his astonishing quickness in the forecourt. At times his racket seemed impassable. What a match we had then. Each man in turn moved from the shadows into the sunlight and back again. They were cold-eyed, almost baleful, emitting waves of willpower before every point. Cash took the second and third sets but Wilander, who served consistently well, then won eight games out of nine. Cash seemed to be tiring. Wilander was probing his forehand and Cash was no longer as quick to respond.

Urged on by the crowd, Cash somehow pumped himself up again. The fifth set was a marvel in that, having given so much for so long, the players produced a set gloriously dominated by dazzling, hard-won points – rather than errors. The crux came when Wilander, with incredible physical and mental resilience, kept himself in a rally he twice seemed to have lost. That gave him a second chance, which he seized, to break 7-6. He held his service to love for the match.

“I played pretty well”, Cash said, “but Mats was too good on the day.” Somebody asked Wilander if he felt he had ruined an Australian party. “Such a great match,” he said, “couldn’t ruin anything.”

From Love Thirty: Three Decades of Champions, by Rex Bellamy

The summit of Everest has had many transient colonists since Hillary and Tenzing first “knocked the bastard off”, as Hillary put it. In the same way, Swedes have crowded the upper slopes of world tennis since Bjorn Borg showed them that it was possible. Wilander led the charge – succeeding Borg as French champion, grabbing the two major titles that eluded Borg, winning Grand Slam championships on four surfaces (clay, grass and two varieties of hard courts) and serving as the rock on which Sweden built a Davis Cup run only four nations have equalled. At the age of 24 Wilander had already won as many Grand Slam singles titles as John McEnroe. Yet somehow this quiet achiever manages to ghost his way through tournaments without attracting attention until the last two or three days – when there is hardly anybody else to attract it.

There is nothing spectacular about Wilander’s tennis or his personality. He just goes about his business in an unfussy way and, unless a Grand Slam event or a Davis Cup tie is in progress, sometimes conducts himself in such a casual manner that one would think the result of a tennis match was no more important than a row of beans. Wilander has to work hard for his points, physically and mentally. That kind of game is demanding: and he admits that he cannot give a hundred percent all the time, that he tends to reserve it for the big occasions. In all this – and in his playing method, too – he is much like Borg. But although Wilander’s game has more variety, he lacks Borg’s unquenchable thirst for winning.

Bjorn Hellberg, rare among Swedish journalists in that he was reporting Wimbledon in the pre-Borg era, makes interesting comparisons between Borg, Wilander and Stefan Edberg. “I watched them as juniors, when they were 11 years old”, Hellberg tells me, “and from the very beginning Wilander and Edberg have always been nice to work with: extremely pleasant young men. Always modest, helpful and generous. Wilander has kept his calmness, his controlled mood, during his whole career. Edberg was a little patchy as a junior, – more temper on court – but that disappeared very early. Two gentlemen. Borg is a different story but on court Borg, too, was a gentleman. What would have happened if they had all been at their best at the same time? Well, Borg always had trouble with attacking players and because of that I think it would have been extremely difficult for him to beat Edberg on fast surfaces. On the other hand I believe Borg would have beaten Edberg on clay, any time.

“With Wilander it is more difficult to say, because he has such a high standard when he is motivated. When he is really “on” he is probably the best of them. The highest potential. Wilander has changed his game all the time. When he beat Vilas in the 1982 final in Paris he won only on his patience, his youth, his willingness to work, and his safe ground strokes. After that he gradually improved his game. He still has his double-fisted backhand but he also has a one-handed sliced backhand, which won him the final of the 1988 U.S. Open against Lendl. He has also improved his attack – his approach game and his net play. On the other hand tennis meant more to Borg and means more to Edberg than it does to Wilander, who finds other values in life. He can have spells when he doesn’t look so interested”…

Wilander won a string of Swedish junior titles and, in 1978, the European championship for 14-year-olds. He left school in 1980 and earned good opinions a year later by qualifying for the German championships and winning the French junior event while Borg was taking the senior title which was to be his last Grand Slam championship. All that was impressive but hardly seemed an adequate basis for Wilander’s achievements in 1982. What matters about experience, though, is its intensity rather than its duration. Wilander had a lot of hardening competition and practice behind him when he went to Paris in 1982 and (at 17 years and 9 months) replaced Borg as the youngest French champion and became the only player except Ken Rosewall – 29 years earlier – to win the junior and senior titles in consecutive years. Wilander’s older brothers undertook an overnight drive in order to watch his semi-final, which ended with an incident that, after Hellberg’s comments, will not surprise you.

José-Luis Clerc, match point down, hit a shot that both players considered to be a winner. The line judge and umpire thought the ball was out: and Jacques Dorfmann, the umpire, announced game, set and match to Wilander and climbed down from his chair. Wilander protested that he could not win that way, that he wanted the point replayed. According to the rules the match was over. But Dorfmann decided that the prevailing climate of courtesy mattered more than the rules. The players were behaving like gentlemen, he told me later, so it was up to him to do the same. The point was replayed.

Wilander had previously played the first five-set match of his career, a four-hour win over Lendl, the favourite. The final was shorter but longer, because four sets with Guillermo Vilas took four hours and 42 minutes…The unseeded Wilander was not playing for fun. He was playing to win: and at that time the only way he could do it was by attritional warfare…What mattered was that on Borg’s birthday Wilander succeeded him as champion of France. In terms of length and quality the French final paled by comparison with the deciding match of a Davis Cup tie played that year at St Louis: John McEnroe beat Wilander 9-7 6-2 15-17 3-6 8-6 in an epic that spanned six hours and 32 minutes. The lad from Vaxjo was beginning to make a habit of playing more tennis in one match than most men play in two.

Wilander now had a status he could not consolidate. Like Boris Becker, who was to win Wimbledon in 1985, he tucked away one of the game’s two most important titles when only 17 years old and still learning his trade. In each case the evolution into genuine all-surface competence was to take a long time. But in 1983 Wilander sprang another surprise, this time on grass, when he competed in the Australian championships – largely as preparation for the Davis Cup final scheduled for the same courts a fortnight later – and beat McEnroe and Lendl in consecutive matches to win the title…In 1984 we were reminded that Wilander still had much to learn, even on clay. Lendl was too smart for him in their French semi-final…Pat Cash stopped Wilander at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow but the tousle-haired Swede kept the pot boiling by retaining the Australian title. And in 1985 Wilander, now a match-hardened 20, beat McEnroe and Lendl in consecutive matches to regain the French championship. By this time he was a more versatile, positive and mature player: more competent and confident at the net and in his exploration of the short angles.

Four years running, Wilander had won either the French title or the Australian. His future looked rosy. But he was beginning to suffer from wear and tear – partly physical, partly psychological. In his next nine Grand Slam tournaments he could do no better than finish runner-up three times: once to Stefan Edberg (the 1985 Australian championships featured the first all-Swedish final of a Grand Slam event) and twice to Lendl. We began to wonder if Wilander still had it in him to make that last push to the summit. Would he, like Borg, be burnt out by the middle 20’s? But those paying close attention were aware that – with the help of his coach, Jan-Anders Sjogren – Wilander was still refining his game. He wanted to make it more interesting. So he worked on the one-handed backhand (which he had often used in emergency, for wide balls) so that he could use it more consistently as a variant to the two-handed shot. The one-handed sliced backhand is less strenuous than the double-fisted stroke: and more effective in dealing with low balls and hitting approach shots. That last point was an important component of another improvement – in Wilander’s net game. Thus it was that his tennis gradually acquired the technical and tactical variety that was the basis for what we may assume was Wilander’s finest year, 1988 (his 1989 recession bore ominous signs of ebbing motivation).

In 1988 Wilander mixed his game admirably, came through a bunch of five-set matches, won three out of the four Grand Slam championships, and was unquestionably the best player in the world. In the first Australian championships played at Flinders Park he won consecutive five-set matches with Edberg and Cash. The final, against Cash, lasted four hours and 28 minutes and was notable for a memorably dramatic fifth set. It was a pity there had to be a loser but Wilander’s was a superb performance in its tactical craft and unflinching tenacity. He was a popular champion, too, with a more engaging, less peevish personaity than that of Cash, a local man. In Paris, Slobodan Zivojinovic came within two points of beating Wilander (as Cash had done in Melbourne) but the Swede was never in such serious trouble again during his four remaining matches. A familiar bete noire, Miloslav Mecir, baffled Wilander at Wimbledon. Then came the U.S. championships and five set wins over Kevin Curren and, in the final, Lendl. That classic final, particularly exhilarating during the crises of the fourth and fifth sets, lasted four hours and 54 minutes. Wilander went to the net almost twice as often as Lendl and, ultimately, broke through by challenging Lendl to pass him with backhands down the line.

It had been a gloriously harrowing year: glorious because of what had been achieved, harrowing because of the mental and physical cost of achieving it. One suspects that Wilander cannot do it again, that (like Lendl) his only remaining ambition is to win Wimbledon. Should that ever happen, Wilander would doubtless put his marriage, his golf, his guitar-playing and his composition of verse way ahead of his tennis. The game is his job, not his life. Wilander just happens to be a sportsman, in both senses. Apart from that, he is a gently contemplative, stoically phlegmatic chap who enjoys winning but can do without the fuss that goes with it. And his common sense and his droll sense of humour will never desert him.

In the post-Wilander years we shall remember that he never quite made 6 feet or 12 stone, that his face was lined, his eyes tired, his hair curly and unruly, his shirts large and flapping loosely over his shorts. He has always had the weary but indomitable air one associates with marathon runners. We shall remember, too, the nimble tactician with wonderfully accurate ground strokes, an unflappable temperament, and a strength of mind that saw him through many a long match. There has always been an air of serenity about Wilander. He lacks the capacity to panic. Maybe that is why he is a single-handicap golfer.

Stefan Edberg, Wimbledon 1988

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990

For the obvious reason that he is still a young man, capable of striding along the summits for many more years, ths can be no more than a half-term report on a graceful, classic exponent of the ‘big’ game. Unless memory lies, Mal Anderson has been the only other player of comparable class who, in the past 30 years or so, has served and volleyed with as much elegant facility as Edberg. In 1968, in Hamburg, I spent a long time watching Anderson. The serve and volley routine can be hard to take. It lacks charm. But Anderson’s instinctive ease of movement and racket-contol somehow gave that routine the uncomplicated allure of a Strauss waltz. So it is with Edberg. This is not to suggest that Edberg is the most efficient modern graduate of the serve-and-volley school. One refers only to the natural flair with which he does his thing. Unlike such heavily muscled contemporaries as Becker and Pat Cash, Edberg brings an aesthetic quality to the three-shot rally. His emergence is a striking eminder that Bjorn Borg‘s playing method – that of a baseliner with a two-fisted backhand – inspired no more than a transient trend in Swedish tennis. That method was Borg’s, not Sweden’s.

The main features of Edberg’s game are his mixture of services (many players find the second ball more difficult to handle than the first), his volleying, especially the cross-court backhand, and his backhand service eturns, which often explode down the court like shells. His forehand is a comparatively second-class shot for a first-class player: seldom threatening, and often wayward when his confidence is low. But Edberg’s command of the backhand and the top-spin lob gives him weapons enough for counter-punching from the back of the court. He is happiest in the forecourt, bending like a sapling in a gale as he springs this way and that and tucks away the volleys – whereupon he often gives a little hop of satisfaction at a point well won.
His general demeanour, though, is one of sad, dreamy languor. Often, he looks only half-awake. But this embodiment of a sight is a dangerously deceptive as those tall, quiet gunfighters familiar from Western movies. Edberg seems reluctant to hurry but, when he does move, the action tends to be swift and short and terminal. One can picture Edberg casually blowing the smoke out of the barrel and instantly going most of the way back to sleep.

He is that kind of man: by no means the aggressive, pushy type, but stubbornly resistant to being pushed. Edberg likes a peaceful, comfortably stable life. Gentle and unassuming, reserved and laconic, he is a private man who enjoys company as long as it is not too demanding. No fuss, if you please. He is among those who apply to themselves the principle that everybody is important but nobody is very important.
Physically, Edberg is a long-limbed, willowy 6ft 2in (which Rod Laver considers may be the ideal height for a tennis player) and weighs around 11st 7lb. He has an arresting and attractive court presence and when that handsomely composed but gloomy mien is enlivened by one of his slow smiles, the mothering instinct wells up in ladies of all ages.

Edberg has a London apartment, in Kensington, but his home is the industrial home of Vastervik on the Baltic coast. He played tennis from the age of seven, took up the game full time at 16, and in the following year, 1983, won the junior Grand Slam. This invited less attention than the 17-year-old’s form in the now defunct Bournemouth tournament. He had to qualify but then reached the semi-finals by beating the cerebral and charming Balazs Taroczy, a specialist on such slow surfaces. Edberg told us that he was a policeman’s son and took up tennis because his mothe wanted him to. His Bournemouth form, plus the comment about his mother, was the first hint we had that he was something special but needed help in fuelling the fires of ambition.

For a few years he was none too sure of himself, none too sure what he wanted out of tennis, and none too sue if the ultimate prizes were worth the effort. He was lucky in that the European representative for Wilson’s, the company who made Edberg’s rackets, turned out to be a congenial friend and, before long, assumed the more constructive roles of manager, coach, and – most important of all – motivator. Tony Pickard had, in fact, turned up in Sweden almost five years before Edberg did. That was in 1961, at Bastad, where Pickard made his Davis Cup debut for Britain. As a player Pickard did not have quite enough talent to match his self-assurance. He soon discovered that it was the other way round for Edberg.

The biggest problem, was to get him to believe in himself. It took nearly three years.

Pickard, almost 32 years older than Edberg was exactly what the young man needed: a wise, witty, avuncular extrovert who knew when to nag Edberg and when to leave him alone.

At 18 Edberg made his Davis Cup debut, playing a spectacular role as Anders Jarryd‘s partner in two remarkable doubles wins. At 19 he confirmed his growing reputation as a tough, resilient competitor by winning the Australian championship. He saved two match points against Wally Masur and beat Ivan Lendl 9-7 in the fifth set. A week after his 21st birthday Edberg produced further evidence of his guts and his belief in himself when he retained the Australian title by beating Melbourne’s local hero, Pat Cash, in a five-set final contested in fierce heat. Between them, Edberg and Mats Wilander won that Australian title for Sweden five years in a row. No other overseas nation has done that.

The next big triumph for Edberg came at Wimbledon in 1988, when he recovered from two sets down to beat Miloslav Mecir in a semi-final that provided an enthralling contrast in playing methods – and then played a glorious match to beat Boris Becker in the first men’s singles final to begin one day and end the next. That year, too, Edberg came from behind to beat Mecir 9-7 in the fifth set of a decisive Davis Cup match.

In 1989 Edberg played the finest clay-court tennis of his career to each – and almost win – the French final. Becker was too strong for him in the Wimbledon final. But it takes a player of exceptional talent and competitive maturity to advance to the French and Wimbledon finals in the same summer. During the era of open competition (1968 onwards) the only other men to manage it were Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe – formidably distinguished company for a player who, for a time, had seemed to be vulnerably diffident. With Pickard’s help, Edberg learned the truth of a couple of lines in Shakespeare:

Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win

1977 Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990

Sarah Virginia Wade, popularly known as Ginny, was only the third British player since Dorothy Round, in the 1930s, to win three women’s singles Grand Slam tournaments. The other two were Angela Mortimer and Ann Jones, who both won on the extremes of court surfaces, grass and clay, whereas Wade’s Grand Slam titles were all on grass. Intensely patriotic, she represented her country for an unparalleled span of years: and her crowning achievement was to win Wimbledon in 1977 when the 100th championships coincided with the 25th anniversary of Queen Elisabeth II’s accession to the throne. The Queen was present for the occasion.

Wade’s patriotism had been diverted from South Africa. Her mother was born there, of British parents, and graduated from Rhodes University before moving on to Cambridge, where Wade’s father, an Oxford graduate, was chaplain. The youngest of four children, Wade was 11 months old when the family settled in Durban, where the archdeacon’s daughter turned out to be a bundle of inexhaustible energy, became obsessed with tennis, and gradually developed a tempestuous, slam-bang playing style. She was 15 years old and one of the nation’s most promising juniors when – South Africa having become a Republic outside the Commonwealth – the Wades returned to England, in February, 1961. At first they lived at Wimbledon, where Wade went to the local grammar school and, with her sister, joined the club across the road from the All England Club. She saw her first Wimbledon that year (Angela Mortimer beat Christine Truman in the first all-British final since 1914). It was in 1961, too, that the family moved to Kent and, this time, stayed put. All one needs to add to that potted off-court history is that Wade, the daughter of a clergyman and a mathematics teacher, studied at the University of Sussex and graduated in general science and physics in June, 1966 – her examinations coinciding with the more energetic challenges of a Wightman Cup contest at Wimbledon.

That background was important. As a much travelled teenager from a scholarly, intellectual, upper middle-class environment rooted in the vicarages of two nations, Wade was a rare commodity. Thee were plenty of players around who could list one or two similar items in their curriculum vitae, but none who combined so much that was unusual. Wade was a throwback to the kind of players who had graced Wimbledon half a century earlier. Inevitably she was something of a misfit in the context of the international tennis circuit as we knew it in the 1960s and 1970s. With her slightly haughty manner, her up-market accent, and her coterie of social and cultural peers, she dod not find it easy to mix with the street-smart hoi polloi. It was as much to her credit as theirs that, while remaining a mite eccentric, she eventually became part of the family. It might have happened sooner but for her comparatively cloistered upbringing.

All that goes some way towards explaining why, in her early years on the tour, Wade lacked a winning personality. It also partly explains why she found it difficult to keep a rein on a passionate nature that often erupted into querulous and unseemly on-court tantrums. She was agressive, turbulent, volatile, highly strung. Often, she was so nervous or distraught that her stroking technique and tactical sense were adversely affected. On such occasions she could lose to inferior players: as happened, notably, when Christina Sandberg, Pat Walkden, and Ceci Martinez beat her in the Wimbledons of 1968, 1979 and 1970. It sat oddly with Wade’s social and academic development that, at times, she could be capable of ill-tempered outbursts and tactical naïvety. She could not always control the fires burning within her – but they never went out. Wade always had star quality or, as friend once put it, a ‘divine spark’. She enjoyed going on stage at players’ cabarets. She saw herself, I suspect, as part of the ‘Establishment’ class born to exert authority. And as the years went by she mellowed, achieved emotional maturity, played with smiling self-assurance, and ceased to get rattled. She learned to control her temperament, her game, and her opponents.

Even the ‘phase one’ Wade was capable of great performances: spectacular, exciting, dramatic, but eschewing the infuriating wildness that punctuated those early years. The demons within were tamed on special occasions in 1968, 1971 and 1972. Her success in the first Open tournament, at Bournemouth (her birthplace), had no moe than historic signifiance, because the women’s event was a sideshow to the men’s. But in the first US Open championships in 1968 she was devastating, beating such formidable opponents as Rosie Casals, Judy Tegart, Ann Jones and Billie Jean King without conceding a set. She was the first British player to win the US women’s title since Betty Nuthall in 1930. The cheque for $6,000 mattered far less than the consistent splendour of Wade’s tennis in winning it. In a tent by the Forest Hills clubhouse she attentively poured champagne for the small contingent of Brits. In those days, there were not many of us around. I recall the stray thought that Wade – like Fred Perry before her – had a character in harmony with the bustling aggression of New York.

1968 Virginia Wade at Tennis Championships at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, News photo

A different source of satisfaction came in the 1971 Italian championships, at that time the toughest clay-court test outside Paris. Wade liked Rome. She liked the tournament. But slow clay was not her scene. She had never mastered it: because patient, devious manoeuvring was not in her nature. That year, the field of 16 was mostly modest. But in the final Wade beat Helga Masthoff (formerly Niessen), who had once committed herself to the opinion that there was no way Wade could ever beat her on clay. Masthoff, tall and unhurried, wth more than a hint of hauteur, exuded the airs and graces of a rather supercilious grande dame. Off court, she had a droll sense of humour. On court, her iron-clad composure (plus the sharpest of tactical wits) could make the likes of Wade seem emotionally dishevelled. Beating her in Rome meant a lot to Wade. But as she poured champagne again, this time on the sunny terrace of the Foro Italico, Wade merely osbserved ‘I’ve learned how to play on this stuff’.

In 1972 Wade beat Evonne Goolagong, the French and Wimbledon champion, in the Australian final. But we had to wait more than five years for the ‘phase two’ Wade to win Wimbledon. She had been playing there since she was 16 (altogether, she contested the singles for 24 consecutive years). The semi-final pairings suggested that Sue Barker was more likely than Wade to win the title for Britain. But Betty Stove beat Barker: and Wade eventually overwhelmed Chris Evert, a result that left Evert in shock for days.
Then Wade beat Stove – whereupon the centre court became a raging sea of Union Jacks, applauding hands, echoing roars, repeated hurrahs, and the improvised paradox of ‘For she’s a jolly good fellow’. It was rather like the last night of the Proms: one of those special occasions on which the British let their hair down. Everything had coincided to make this a great day: anniversaries for Wimbledon and the Queen and, most of all, the long-deferred triumph of a player closely identified with tradition, royalty and patriotism.

Virginia Wade

Wade was 5ft 7in tall and her weight usually hovered around 9st 7lb. She was dark and lithe, springy and athletic, thoufh rather heavy-footed. Her blue eyes had icy, alarming clarity. She had a graceful yet restlessly untamed air about her. One sensed the threatening reserves of nervous and physical energy, the jungle instinct, the prefeence (on court) for action rather than cerebral indulgences. In most of this she had much in common (and was aware of it) with the big cats. It was easy to imagine Wade in the latter role, bounding on to her prey and tearing it to bits. That natural athleticism, aggression and fighting spirit was the main reason for her success. Her racket-work was not exceptional. She had a superb first service, delivered with a classically fluent action, and her volleys were boldly terminal when she took care with them. The forehand was dangerous but often wayward, the backhand more consistently damaging – she put so much ‘work’ on the approach shot that, once over the net, it became almost subterranean.

Wade was a mass of contradictory qualities, not least the fact that she seemed to be thorougly English in spite of her South African upbringing and a disposition that was probably more suited to New York (where she was to settle) than the Home Counties. She aroused conflicting emotions but nobody could feel dispassionate in the presence of so much passion. In her autobiography Wade pointed out that she had the same birthday as Arthur Ashe (two years older) and that they were the first US Open champions and both won Wimbledon at the age of 31. Add the big services, the cultural interests and the African connections, and you can begin to believe in the influence of the stars.