Virginia Wade: 'We used to think there was a British winner every eight years'

Brian Viner Interviews: Thirty years after her greatest triumph, the last Briton to win a Wimbledon singles title reflects on her luck in not facing Sue Barker in the final and what has gone wrong since
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The Independent Online

When Virginia Wade won the women's singles title at Wimbledon 30 years ago on Sunday, in front of The Queen in the summer of the monarch's Silver Jubilee, it seemed like divine providence, almost as if her father, the former Archdeacon of Durban, had had a quiet word with his boss.

Yet as Wade gleefully held up the Venus Rosewater Dish that afternoon, celebrating the third Grand Slam victory (after the 1968 US Open and the Australian Open in 1972) in a career in which she briefly rose to world No 2, she could hardly have suspected that three decades later she would still be feted at Wimbledon as the most recent British singles champion. Nice as it is to have her achievements so fondly remembered, she must find it as dispiriting as the rest of us that on all the finals days since, the only British woman to get her hands on the hallowed trophy is the Duchess of Kent.

"Well, Angela Mortimer had won in 1961, and Ann Jones in 1969, so when I won in 1977 we all thought it happened every eight years, but maybe we were just anomalies, because there was Sue Barker and Jo Durie but then the players just petered out. It's the strangest thing that there is nobody even hovering on the brink. It just seems as if the complete package is impossible to find. Either we've had very good players not mentally tough enough, or they've been mentally right without the technique. Of current players I thought Elena Baltacha [defeated in the first round on Tuesday] had the package, but unfortunately she got ill."

Wade believes that the British - and despite the South African accent, and having lived mainly in New York for 30 years, she still considers herself every inch one of us - must lower our expectations of women's tennis.

"People are concentrating on the wrong thing," she says. "There's this preoccupation with having another winner at Wimbledon, rather than getting six or seven players into the top 100. That would generate a healthy rivalry and one of them could forge through, but to obsess about a Grand Slam winner is so unrealistic, and there's also an unrealistic sense of achievement before anyone has done anything. It infuriates me. A British woman gets through one round and suddenly she's on live TV. It's so counter-productive. They need someone to tell them, 'No TV until you've won, say, three rounds'.

"At the moment, getting through one round becomes a triumph, and because 15-year-olds these days have the poise I did as a 25-year-old, the media gets excited and they get built into celebrities, before they've even become fully fledged tennis players."

Wade interrupts her flow of wisdom with a sip of cappuccino. We are in the lounge of a chic hotel not far from the home in Chelsea that she shares, along with the New York pad and a place in Kent, with the significant other she prefers not to mention. On all other matters, however, she is engagingly forthright. I ask her to tell me about her childhood - her parents emigrated from Bournemouth to Cape Town, and then Durban, shortly after the war - and about her late father, the archdeacon.

"He was a charismatic man, who had a very interesting life. He got a job in the Anglican church in Paris before the war, but he and my mother left just before Paris was occupied. They settled in Bournemouth, then went to South Africa because my mother had been born there and still had ties. My father had some good jobs but he was always useless with money. He didn't really need it in Durban because he had status there, as a leading member of the community.

"There was no class-consciousness there - there isn't among the whites in South Africa - so I was shocked when I came back here aged 15 and noticed it. I can't say there weren't prejudices in my family, but it wasn't rigid prejudice." Does she mean colour prejudice? "No, not really. Class, gender and, I suppose, colour was included. It wasn't that you disliked the blacks or anything. You didn't, you just didn't really associate with them that much.

"Mother always had a very soft spot for the Indians, you know, but... I would like to say they were more liberal than they were, and I'd like to say I am more liberal than I am. You end up being fairly conservative, but father saw people as individuals and I really think I do too."

This I can vouch for. It is rare for my sporting interviewees to express the slightest interest in what I usually write about, where I live, how long it will take me to get home, and nor would I expect them to, but Wade, rather beguilingly, seems genuinely interested.

She was already an excellent teenage tennis player by the time the family returned to England in the late 1950s, and then she blossomed further, she tells me, despite being parted from the African sun. "But one of my brothers was a Rhodes Scholar and my father believed in the value of education, so there was no way I was going to be let off the hook. At 18 I was itching to play tennis full-time. I'd been a little bit lost when we came back so tennis had been my anchor. But I was made to wait. And I don't know how much my father really cared about my tennis until I started doing well. When I played a blinder to win the US Open he started getting proud of me, and boy, was he ever proud of me when I won Wimbledon."

Presumably she knows that for my generation her name will forever be synonymous with that bunting-bedecked summer? "Yes, it's funny that the Golden Jubilee five years ago didn't create nearly as much excitement. I was 31 in 1977, and I felt that I'd failed myself at Wimbledon [between 1972 and 1976 she reached the semi-finals twice and the quarter-finals three times, the prototype for Tim Henman] but when I found out weeks before that The Queen was going to be there on the final day, that was the extra motivation I needed to subdue my nerves. Sports people so often trick themselves with motivation, telling themselves that they're going to win because they know they ought to believe it. But I really did believe it."

Her belief propelled her to an outstanding semi-final victory against the hot favourite Chris Evert, and not even the loss of the first set in the final against the big Dutchwoman Betty Stove derailed her sense of destiny. She won 4-6, 6-3, 6-1.

I tell her that I have talked to Sue Barker, who still admonishes herself for losing to Stove in the semi-final, denying us (if not perhaps The Queen, who is said to loathe tennis) the even tastier treat in Silver Jubilee year of an all-British final.

Wade, though, was quite happy not to be playing Barker, and I ask her whether she was worried that the crowd might root for the woman with the Devon, rather than the Durban, vowels? Might it indeed have been a Henman v Rusedski type of situation, even if Wade's claims to Englishness - she was born here, after all - were somewhat stronger than Greg Rusedski's? "No, I never really felt that. I don't remember ever being concerned where the public allegiance was. I always got a good response from the crowd. But it was never easy playing someone from your own country, and Sue had been playing well that season, better than me. I was relieved it was Betty rather than Sue."

Does she understand Barker's enduring regrets? "Oh yes, you can't help going back over your career. Life's an evolution, and I'm still trying to evaluate where I could have done better. I should have won more. If I'd known at 23 what I did at 30, I don't see why I couldn't have won once or twice more on grass. I was talking to Sue, too, recently, and she asked was I ever No 1. I said, 'No, I was No 2'. And she was No 3, for a time.

"There was always somebody better than me. At first Margaret Court was so good, then Billie-Jean [King] was the leader of the pack. Before them it was [Maria] Bueno. I always regret not beating Bueno, who was my heroine in the early days."

So much for the past; let's turn again to the present and future. Wade berates the "weird" social influences in all English-speaking countries for suppressing interest in tennis. "There are ways other than sport to get rich and famous. You have only to appear on a TV reality show. And it's a risk going into tennis because you might not make it.

"As for those who do make it, the fascination with celebrity makes it hard for them to keep their feet on the ground. On the other side of the coin, look at Justine Henin. She's not built like a battleship, she's not 6ft 2in, she's a little shy, not glamorous, and so she avoids the interference of people asking her to go on this show or that show, to model this or that clothing range. It's nice to have glamour in women's sport but it's difficult sometimes for players to incorporate it."

And if she were made high priestess of British tennis, with the right to do anything she wanted, what might it be? "I'd want children to have more fun. You see them in the parks playing football and having a good time. Tennis is an individual sport but that doesn't mean it can't be fun. Little kids can start by throwing and catching balls, playing tag, working on their hand-eye co-ordination, but in a fun way.

"The difficulty comes at the 12-year-old age when you have to work harder and it gets pretty brutal, but I think the boys have been going in a better direction than the girls here for quite a while.

"Obviously Tim and now Andy help, just by being inspiring, but television exposure helps too, and that's been lacking. Eurosport carries a lot of tennis, but it's almost like overkill, and underkill with the BBC, except at Wimbledon time. It's the same in the States, where golf gets much more regular coverage.

"Tennis coverage is very sporadic on the networks over there. They used to have a lot more but they got fed up when [Guilermo] Vilas was playing, and seemed to get into every single final, week after week."

In Britain, she thinks that the seeds of underachievement now were sown even before she won her Wimbledon title. "The economy was so bad in the early 1970s, with high taxation and power restrictions, and even though tennis was open and professional, there was a resistance to putting up money. That put British tennis in a hole at a time when it was booming worldwide." A sigh. "Even then we were telling the LTA to put together good junior programmes and find good coaches, but it took them years."

Does she expect to be invited back to Wimbledon as an octogenarian guest of honour in 2027, 50 years after winning the title, and still the most recent Brit to do so? "I really hope not," she says, with feeling.