23 June 2002

Brough Scott talks to the last victorious Briton at Wimbledon, the women’s champion in Silver Jubilee year

The queen still reigns. It may be the commentary platform above Eastbourne centre court rather than the Buckingham Palace balcony but there is a regal serenity in Virginia Wade. She, more than any other sporting person, knows how Jubilees are meant to feel.

For it was 25 years ago that Miss Wade beat Miss Stove 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 to win the Ladies’ Championship at the Centenary Wimbledon and received the trophy from the Queen in Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee year. Virginia was 31, it was her 16th Wimbledon where, in the previous five years, she and the nation had agonisingly lost three times in the quarter-finals and twice in the semis. It was a beautiful summer, the joy of the nation was unconfined. Any resonance with what could happen to a long-standing British hope this year?

She unwraps the memories with practiced skill in that distinctive voice which mixes her essential Englishness with the South African upbringing and current New York location. “It was amazing after I won,” says Virginia quickly relishing the moment all over again.

“I now know why I did not win another year, for doing it in 1977 was like winning three times. I had been ready to win Wimbledon for the previous two years and coming to the end of my realistic chances. Then I found it was the centenary and the Queen was going to come. So I thought that if the Queen is going to make the effort I had better be there and as I wouldn’t have many other chances of getting into the final, I had better make damn sure I won it.”

Virginia Wade at 56 is a handsome, intelligent woman at ease with herself and her place in the pantheon; over here as usual to share her wisdom with us on the BBC. So, too, the lady outside on the TV platform. In 1977 Sue Barker, as a dazzling 21-year-old, was seeded No 4 and is still disgusted by the way she lost to Betty Stove in the semi-final – “I played an absolutely crap match,” she says with a grimace, “I was terrible.”

Virginia was seeded No 3; never since has Britain had two girls anywhere near so highly rated. Martina Navratilova was No 2 and Chris Evert the top seed. “From about six weeks before, I was absolutely convinced I could do it but always had beating Chris in the back of my mind. When I met her in the semi-final I was totally focused. I was really very professional at that time. I had won the US Open back in 1968 and had grown up a lot since then, had realised you had to shut things out, even get people to read the newspapers for you so that you got desensitised. People ask if winning Wimbledon changed my life but I had changed my life before I won Wimbledon and that is why I won it.”

Outside, the breeze tugged at the flags and polite Eastbourne applause punctuated the tennis, but we are back in the astonishing atmosphere of that final in front of the Queen. “The crowd was hysterical,” remembers Virginia,”they were more nervous than I was. I had a good record against Betty and knew I could get back even if she got ahead. Even when she won the first set I just stuck to it. There was a nervous moment again in the second set [she can say that again] but I was determined just to keep to my game and get the job done.”

So to the final set: “I was getting on to more and more of a high and the crowd was on the same high. I was seeing the ball like a football, I was very energised and when it came to the end there was just this unadulterated happiness. It was such an experience being there and it was very humbling. I just felt at one with everyone. I had had this rocky relationship with the British public. I was not quite the demure English girl – I had a reputation for being temperamental. But after that, all was forgiven.”

Listening to those memories recalled a golden summer when the apparent rosy prospects went on to 1978 when Sue and Virginia combined to win the final doubles and famously land the Wightman Cup. British women’s tennis looked set fair but now our top player is rated 135 in the world. “It both saddens and angers me,” says Virginia reflectively. “They seem to tie themselves up in such knots nowadays. The intensity of the coaching and practising they put in seems to confuse the issue. Because the whole point should be enjoying going out there and pitting yourself against someone else. That is what makes tennis such a wonderful game.”

Virginia shakes her head in disappointment and outside, next to the cameras, Sue also wonders aloud. “I don’t know what it is,” she says. “We have plenty of girls ranked as 12 to 14-year-olds and then something happens. I know the education system is strict but there ought to be a place for tennis somewhere.”

Twenty-five years on, the years have also been kind to her, although she can’t say the same of Virginia’s final. “I still felt so devastated from messing up against Betty Stove that I just couldn’t watch and went shopping in London to get away from it. That was a disaster because everybody kept coming up and saying, “Ooh, do you know that Ginny has lost the first set?” In the end I gave up and got a cab and he turned round and said, `Hello Sue, Ginny has just won the second set!’ “

She chuckles with that natural confiding charm which she now radiates effortlessly through the cathode tube, a trick so infinitely harder than it looks. “Of course, I was thrilled that Ginny won it,” she adds, “and after I had licked my wounds I was still only 20. I thought I would have another chance so it didn’t bother me but now it does. Instead of being in a boat in Monte Carlo I am working for a living.”

She gives a self-deprecatory toss of that flaxen head and as she goes back to stand on a steel sound box to do her next link for TV, you register that as the Principality’s loss is very much our gain. We can, at least, rejoice that both Virginia and Sue are shining in their after-life: a reminder of how it should be, two jewels in the Jubilee crown.

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