Biography of Virginia Wade

Virginia Wade is one of Britain’s most successful female tennis players of all time.

Winner of three singles titles and four doubles titles in grand slams, she was ranked in the world’s top ten for thirteen consecutive years. Her highest world ranking was number 2 which she reached in November 1975.

Wade’s most famous victory was winning the Wimbledon singles title in 1977 after sixteen attempts. The moment has gone down in British sporting history, made all the more special by the fact that it was also the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and Great Britain was in the mood to celebrate. Queen Elizabeth II herself was present at the championships to witness the win.

Athletic and lithe, Wade had an almost cat-like quality on court, but gained a reputation for inconsistency. During her early years in professional tennis, she was prone to on-court tantrums and frequently wore her heart on her sleeve. This affected her game and she would often lose to lower-ranked players who she should rightfully have beaten. In the second half of her career she matured as a player and was able to maintain a more relaxed attitude whilst playing, one of the traits which helped her to eventually win Wimbledon.

In 1968 Wade won the British Hardcourt Open in Bournemouth and five months later she triumphed at US Open ousting Billie Jean King 6-4 6-2 in the final. Matching King’s renowned serve and volley tactics, Wade beat the American tennis legend at her own game.

1968 also heralded the open era of tennis, the year that the sport became professional. Wade had played at Bournemouth as an amateur and was unable to collect the prize money due to her status. By the time she won the US Open she had turned professional and was able to accept the cheque for $6000. The USA experienced a tennis boom in the seventies and Billie Jean King launched Team Tennis, a concept which became incredibly popular during that era. Wade played for the New York Apples and moved to New York City where she has been primarily based ever since.

Four years after her US Open triumph, Wade won her second grand slam at the Australian Open when she beat Australia’s sweetheart, Evonne Goolagong. She also had several successes in doubles and won four Grand Slam titles with Australian Margaret Court, two at the US Open and one each at the French and Australian Opens. Although prize money was a pittance by comparison to today’s tournaments, Wade won around $1.5 million during the course of her career. Her prize money for winning Wimbledon was a mere £13,500.

In 1977, the year that she finally triumphed at Wimbledon, she was the subject of the popular TV programme ‘This Is Your Life’ when Eamon Andrews surprised her with the famous red book at the National Sports Stadium at Crystal Palace, London. She also won ‘BBC Sports Personality of the Year’ eclipsing the sporting achievements of cricketer, Geoffrey Boycott and motorcyclist, Barry Sheene.

The following year gave British tennis fans another reason to celebrate when Great Britain beat the USA in the Wightman Cup at the Royal Albert Hall. Virginia Wade and Sue Barker were triumphant in a deciding doubles match against the formidable team of Chris Evert and Pam Shriver.

In 1983, aged 37, Wade won the doubles title at the Italian Open with Romanian, Virginia Ruzici. She was awarded an OBE for services to tennis in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 1986.

1. Wade's early life

A picture of a tennis court

Sarah Virginia Wade was born in Bournemouth, England on 10th July 1945, the youngest of four children and the daughter of the Archdeacon of Durban.

Throughout her life she has always used her middle name of Virginia instead of her first name of Sarah. Her family moved to South Africa when she was one and she started to learn tennis at nine years old. She fell in love with the sport and obsessively honed her skills motivated by her passion for the game.

The family returned to England in 1960 much to Virginia’s disappointment. At fifteen, she not only missed her friends, but also the South African weather which had been perfect for practising tennis.

The family were based in Wimbledon for a short while and although she disliked the British climate, she threw herself into her sport and played for Wimbledon County Girls Grammar School tennis team with her sister, who was also a tennis player.

The family then moved to Kent where Wade attended Tunbridge Wells Girls Grammar School. Her father encouraged her to go to university and whilst studying at Sussex University, she commuted to Queen’s Club in London three times a week to practise her tennis. Excelling academically, she graduated with a degree in Maths and Physics in 1966 after which she joined the tennis circuit.

2. Her Wimbledon Career

A picture of a tennis ball just before being served

Wade entered the Wimbledon Championships in 1977 with a world ranking of number three.

After disposing of fellow Briton Jo Durie in the first round, she swept aside American Betsy Nagelsen, South African Yvonne Vemaak and Romanian Mariana Simionescu. She then disposed of American Rosie Casals in the quarter-finals, managing to reach the semi-finals without dropping a single set.

Prior to 1977, Wade had successfully reached a couple of semi-finals at Wimbledon, but never been able to make it all the way. The year of the Queen’s Jubilee was to be different. In the semi-finals, she found herself across the net from top-seed Chris Evert who was favourite to win the tournament.

Wade utilised patience and determination to play one of the best matches of her life and overcame Evert 6-2, 4-6, 6-1. In the other semi-final, the imposing Dutch player, Betty Stove, beat Sue Barker to deny the patriotic Wimbledon crowds an all British Final.

On the day of the final, Friday 1st July 1977, Wade was nine days away from her 32nd birthday. The atmosphere on centre court was compared to ‘Last Night of the Proms’ by the press and Union Jack flags fluttered throughout the stadium. Despite her well known lack of interest in tennis, the Queen was in attendance for the first time since 1962, a fact that Wade has since mentioned inspired her greatly.

The crowds sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ as they waited for the players to make their entrance. In addition to being the year of the Queen’s Jubilee, it happened to be Wimbledon’s centenary. It seemed that the stars were aligning.

Schools throughout the country cancelled lessons so that children could watch the match. The first set was error-strewn, and the nation gasped as one with every point played. World number five, big-serving Stove took the first set, but at 3-3 in the second set the tide began to turn, and Wade equalled the match at one set all.

Wade dominated the third set and took the match 4-6,6-3,6-1. The centre court erupted in cheers and the crowd burst into a rendition of ‘For she’s a jolly good fellow’. When Wade was presented with the trophy by the Queen, she couldn’t hear her congratulatory words above the cheers. She finally raised the famous Venus Rosewater Dish above her head after sixteen consecutive attempts and the timing couldn’t have been better.

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3. Wade’s Legacy

A picture of a tennis ball laying on the court

Retiring from singles in 1985, Virginia Wade continued to play doubles professionally for another year.

She coached for four years after retiring and these days just plays for exercise and relaxation, saying that she finds a session on the court therapeutic.

Although Wade was an inspiration to a generation of girls, no British female tennis player has been able to emulate her success. The only player to come close at Wimbledon was Johanna Konta, who was the first British woman to reach the singles semi-finals for forty years in 2017. In 1989 Wade was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, an organisation which celebrates the greatest champions in history.

There was much criticism of the media in 2013 when Andy Murray became the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years. Both the newspapers and the prime minister, David Cameron, congratulated Andy on being the first Briton to win the championships since 1936. It seemed that Wade’s victory had been overlooked and she was referred to as the forgotten champion.

Wade still lives in New York City as well as maintaining a flat in Fulham, London and the family home in Kent. She also owns a villa in Bermuda. She has many interests outside of tennis and admits that she enjoys the good things in life. She collects Greek and Russian idols, enjoys red wine, classical music and dining out.

Since retiring Wade has commentated for both the BBC and Eurosport as well as several American TV networks. She has been the vice-president of Women of the Year Luncheon and the Dan Maskell Charity, which raises money for disabled tennis players. She is the patron of Give it to the Max and Leadership through Sport, which helps support the development of underprivileged children.

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