British professional tennis player Virginia Wade will go down in history as winning the Wimbledon Women’s Singles title in a very special year. Not only was it the famous tournament’s centenary, but it was also the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, when patriotism was at its height.
A three-times Grand Slam singles winner, Wade was 31 years old when she won Wimbledon on 1st July 1977. At the time, Guardian correspondent David Irvine described the scene on Centre Court as resembling the “last night of the proms” as the crowd spontaneously burst into a rousing version of Land of Hope and Glory after her victory.
Wade agreed, describing her victory as being “like a fairy-tale” when the deafening cheers erupted for the much-loved player and for Queen Elizabeth II.
When she won Wimbledon, it had been a long road to victory for the player born Sarah Virginia Wade in Bournemouth on 10th July 1945. Always known as Virginia throughout her playing career, she learned to play tennis as a child in South Africa after her family emigrated.
Her father was the Archdeacon of Durban and this was where Wade first showed her skills as a tennis player. She continued to play successfully at Tunbridge Wells High School when the family returned to England in 1960. At the age of 15, Wade excelled academically, as well as being a talented tennis player.
She played tennis throughout her schooldays and in 1961, at the age of 16, she was a member of Wimbledon County Girls’ Grammar School tennis team, before going on to study physics and mathematics at the University of Sussex.
After graduating in 1966, Wade joined the amateur tennis circuit and enjoyed two notable victories in 1968. First, she won the British Hard Court Open at Bournemouth, followed by a memorable victory in the US Open Women’s Singles Championship five months later.
By this time, she had turned professional and won prize money of $6,000, after beating Billie Jean King in straight sets in the final.
In 1972, Wade won the Australian Open – her second Grand Slam singles title – by beating Australia’s national hope, Evonne Goolagong. Subsequently, she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to lawn tennis in the Queen’s 1973 Birthday Honours list.
When she won at Wimbledon in 1977, Wade had been competing in the event for 16 years without any real success. She had reached two semi-finals but had never before reached the final.
In the event’s centenary year, she reached the final for the first time by beating defending champion Chris Evert of the USA in a tough semi-final, 6–2, 4–6, 6–1.
Wade faced Betty Stöve of Holland in the final. Queen Elizabeth II herself attended the final for the first time since 1962 to celebrate her jubilee year. Centre Court was packed and after the match, Wade admitted Wimbledon had been the focus of her whole year.
She had lost the 1976 semi-final against Billie-Jean King and the American icon had told her afterwards she should start preparing already for the 1977 tournament. Wade’s determination never wavered and even in the semi-final, Evert said she could see in her opponent’s eyes her renewed hunger for the title that year.
Wade beat Stöve in an exciting three-set match to win the championship for the first time, nine days before her 32nd birthday. She credited her new American coach, Ham Richardson, with massively improving her technique. For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow and Land of Hope and Glory rang out across the stadium after her momentous win.
Wade featured on the popular television show, This is Your Life, in December 1977, when host Eamonn Andrews surprised her at London’s Crystal Palace, where she was attending the National Sports Stadium.
During her long career, Wade also won four Grand Slam women’s doubles titles with Margaret Smith Court, including two at the US Open and one each at the French Open and the Australian Open. Her final major competitive victory was the women’s doubles at the 1983 Italian Open at the age of 37, with team-mate Virginia Ruzici of Romania.
In total, Wade won 55 professional singles championships, with prize money totalling $1,5 million. She is a very private person and her exact wealth today is unknown.
Wade was in the top 10 world singles, ranking continually from 1967 to 1979. She retired from singles competitions following the 1985 tennis season but continued to play doubles until the end of 1986.
Today, she remains an inspiration to young tennis players. She says she still loves the game and although she no longer has any desire to compete, she plays for exercise, as she finds it therapeutic and can think more clearly when on the court.
In 1981, when she was still an active player, Wade became a BBC commentator for tennis events. She became the first woman to be elected on to the Wimbledon Committee in 1982.
She was awarded the title Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s 1986 Birthday Honours list for services to lawn tennis and she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Rhode Island in 1989.
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