Virginia Wade, Britain’s last Wimbledon champion

Right after his semifinal win against Tsonga at the 2010 Australian Open, Federer had joked that Britain had been searching for a male Grand Slam champion for about 150,000 years. In fact it’s “only” 75 years: Fred Perry was the last to win a Slam in 1936 (he won Wimbledon and US Open that year).

Fred Perry statue at Wimbledon:

Fred Perry statue

The last British woman to win a Slam is Virginia Wade: Wimbledon in 1977. Not only was 1977 the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Wimbledon Championships, but it was also the 25th year of the reign (the Silver Jubilee) of Queen Elizabeth II.

Virginia Wade was born July 10, 1945 in Bournemouth, England, where her father was vicar of Holy Trinity Church. The family moved to South Africa in 1946, before Virginia was 1. After finding a racquet while cleaning out a closet at age 9, she played tennis “every single minute I wasn’t obliged to do something else.”
When Virginia was 15 the family moved back to England. By age 16 Virginia was considered the most promising junior player in England, and she qualified to play in the Championships at Wimbledon. She continued to play at Wimbledon every year through 1987–26 years in all.
Virginia won 55 pro singles titles, including 3 Grand Slam tourneys (1968 US Open, 1972 Australian Open, 1977 Wimbledon).

In her book Courting Triumph, she describes her victory over Betty Stove in 1977 Wimbledon final:

I’ve been here sixteen years in a row and have never managed to catch sight of it. Now barring anything short of divine intervention, it’s straight ahead. The long-sought-after light at the end of a sixteen-year-old tunnel.
I’ve played this tournament for exactly half of my life.
I’m in the final for the first time.
The Queen is watching. Everybody is watching.
I’m going to win this thing if I have to kill myself to do it…

Two match points to me.
I raced to the ball; it was too good. I even slipped in my effort.
Second match point.
Betty served wide to my backhand on the left court. It skipped off the tape and into the tram-line. Fault.
She tossed the ball up for her last serve. I moved around to take it on my forehand; I went down the line at her feet. She bent for the forehand volley. It was too low; too wide. The return was perfect.
There was a tumultuous explosion. I sprinted to shake hands. What could I say but “Thanks” to Betty. She patted my head; she graciously offered congratulations.
…the umpire began to make an announcement. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” I listened wondering what he was going to say. “The score was 4-6, 6-3, 6-1.”
…The Queen was leaving the Royal Box.
…Like an actor frozen backstage, I felt the hand of the stage manager shoving me towards Her Majesty. I curtsied and shook hands.
The plate was in my grasp.
…The next thing I remember was Betty encouraging me to hold the salver higher. It had been a tough afternoon for her. There was every reason for her to feel excluded, but she joined in with the gallantry of a great sport.
The voices of “Over here, Virginia!” were drowned by probably the first chorus of “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” ever heard on the Wimbledon Centre Court.

Excerpts from Chris Gorringe‘s book Holding Court:

After the heat of 1976 came Virginia Wade’s win in 1977, one of the greatest highlights of my time at Wimbledon. She was certainly never one of the easiest people to support, always coming agonisingly close and yet always falling at the last hurdle. After 16 years of trying, she herself was only too aware of her shortcomings, and has declared that she was ‘the best player not to have won Wimbledon and only because my attitude had been wrong.’

In 1977, however, the stage could not have been set more perfectly for the final between Virginia Wade and Betty Stove. It was the centenary of The Championships, and also the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, with the Queen present in the Royal Box to watch the match. Immediately before the Queen sat down, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ was played, and there was a carnival-like atmosphere.

When she lost the first set 4-6, it seemed as if Virginia would fall to her normal demons, but she rallied to take the new two 6-3 6-1. Prior to Wimbledon, Virginia had been playing for the New York Apples in an American inter-city tennis league, with the likes of Billie Jean King, Fred Stolle and Sandy Mayer. Possibly, close liaison with these other players had had a positive impact both mentally and physically – when the going got tough on Centre Court, this time Virginia rose to the challenge.

When she won the final point, she yelped with joy, but the sound was lost under the noise of every man, woman and flag-waving child leaping up and cheering and clapping. The Duchess of Kent leapt up too and gave a clenched-fist victory salute as everyone was carried away on a sea of emotions – a mix of joy and relief that Virginia had finally done it.
Billie Jean King was to comment to Marjorie Fraser, the locker room attendant that

This script was written in heaven

And it was. During the presentation, the Queen spoke to Virginia, but her words were drowned out by the noise. In a wonderful moment of tact and discretion, the Queen moved back to allow the victor to take centre stage. Virginia’s own take on it was that

It was like a fairytale, with everyone cheering for the Queen and for me
Leave a comment