A popular British comedy that ran until very recently in Piccadilly featured a line of small talk which went, "I see where Virginia is doing well at Wimbledon this year." When London theatergoers heard it, they knew instantly who Virginia was and they never failed to groan at the wishful little lie. Virginia never did well at Wimbledon. Virginia never even got to the finals until last Friday, when an entire nation, including Elizabeth II, Queen of England, who was on hand in her favorite Saturday go-to-meetin' pink, stopped groaning. Bands played. Union Jacks waved and the ecstatic audience broke into For She's a Jolly Good Fellow, GINNY FIZZ (as the tabloids cruelly used to shout it) was suddenly GINNY TONIC. On her 16th try Virginia Wade, 31, the vicar's daughter, had finally won a Wimbledon.
She prevailed against another surprise finalist, seventh-seeded Betty Stove of The Netherlands. The score was 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 as they fumbled through just the sort of war of nerves and cement elbows that the heretofore collapsible Wade had always been proficient at losing on Centre Court. But if it was dreadful tennis, it was terrific theater. Or, as Virginia said, "The whole thing is one big fairy tale."
Wade had won the championships of Australia, Italy and the United States before she was 26, but the closest she had come to a cherished Wimbledon victory were two semifinal appearances in the last three years. More often she had succumbed to the awful pressures that the British public and press force upon their few world-class athletes.
Wade, for instance, is probably better remembered in Great Britain for losing to the likes of Christina Sandberg, Pat Walkden and Cece Martinez at Wimbledon than for winning the Forest Hills final over Billie Jean King nine long years ago. Indeed, her reputation for choking in the big ones dogged Wade's footsteps even up to last week, which is why she kept insisting that her new game, with emphasis on more accurate serving and forehand consistency, went right along with her new fluffy haircut to create a brand new Ginny.
July 10, 1977
"To become the mistress of the situation here," Wade said last week, "you must balance the determination with the tension. If I am determined enough, I can forget about the tension. I want to show that people's opinions about me are out of date. I've got the willpower and the guts to win this tournament. If I can just stop dreaming and get on with it, I will win."
She won in the semis when she came up against a moderately familiar conqueror by the name of Evert. It was right then and there—not when she beat Rosie Casals in the quarters or Stove in the final, not when she beat the well-known Joanne Durie and the equally famous Yvonne Vermaak, among other huge talents in the power-laden, say-hey-for-equal-pay women's draw—that Virginia Wade won her Wimbledon.
Having disposed of the Mighty Muppet, Tracy Austin, earlier in the tournament, Chris Evert had set her sights on meeting the comeback queen, King, whom she had never beaten on grass. "I came back to Wimbledon because I listened to my heart," said Billie Jean. She should have listened to her knees.
In truth, the Evert-King confrontation was decided on the very first point, when King served and rushed the net. Killing her softly, Evert lifted a graceful lob to the far corner, which King could merely gaze after. Point, game, set and match.
For the record, the score was 6-1, 6-2—an awesome Evertian display of marksmanship from the baseline, plus a few net-rushing volleys. "Billie Jean didn't intimidate me," Chris said. "It's hard for me to get a good challenge these days, and this was it. I think that's the best I ever played on grass." In fact, Billie Jean scored fewer points against Chris than did Tracy Austin.
Along with her exquisite tennis, Evert was making more ripples in the gossip columns by being seen with Jimmy Connors once again. The couple dined together a few times, and with Ilie and Nicki Nastase they went to see Neil Diamond at the Palladium. They also showed up at each other's matches with increasing regularity. "Chris has always kept in touch with Jimmy," a friend explained. "Only now it's getting to be more than just 'in touch.' "
Then came the biggest surprise of a continually surprising Wimbledon: Chris Evert was beaten. No, not just beaten. Picked apart, thrashed and left stranded out there on the green sod.
When was the last time Evert went through a first set making more errors than winners, or failing to win her service, or double-faulting twice in one game, the last on set point? She did that against Wade, who covered the net while gobbling up Evert's short lobs and over-heading them clear for a 6-2 win. Though still badly off form, Chris rallied to take the second set 6-4. But in the third, she continued to suffer from her mysterious malaise, shoveling her service returns rather than smashing them, committing utterly stupid errors in judgment and, worst of all, not seeming to care.
After Wade finished her off 6-1 on a point that Evert didn't even wait to be called out, she sat crying in an antique bathtub in the locker room. Her mother walked in. "I'm sorry Mom," Chris said. "I just can't talk to anybody."
With all due respect to Wade, who played the match of her life on the most important occasion of her life—Jubilee Ginny and all that—there was something drastically wrong with Chris Evert, which had nothing to do with her tennis. Most speculation centered directly upon Connors.
The gentlemen's No. 1 seed had told Chris he would be at the Wade match, but when Evert looked up to the players' box for moral support early on, Connors wasn't there. Nor did he arrive later. Once before, in 1975, Connors had affected the outcome of an Evert match when he showed up in the stands with Actress Susan George just as Chris was taking a 3-0 lead over King in the third set of the semifinal. Evert blew the match. Sure enough, a headline last week on the day after the Evert-Wade debacle read, SUSAN GEORGE FLIES IN TO SEE JIMMY.
Wade, naturally, could not be bothered with such secondary considerations. There was a tournament to be won on what she called "my court, my home ground."
On the morning of the final Wade put a pillow over her telephone and Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony on her record player. When she arrived at Wimbledon, Wade sat alone in the vast, empty Centre Court stadium to soak up the atmosphere.
As she fell behind in the desultory first set. Wade realized she "wasn't running enough, wasn't hitting enough balls, wasn't even sweating." So she began to bang the drum quickly and apply more pressure to Stove's erratic ground strokes. Slowly but surely, Wade, her ebony mane blowing in the wind, took command. At the end Stove, who moved through the match as if weighted down by the wooden shoes of her native Holland, put her hands over her ears as the crowd erupted in song.
Certainly, nothing could spoil Ginny Wade's fairy tale. "I felt I was the best player ever not to have won Wimbledon," she said. "I deserved it. To be able to say I did it—that's where my dreams were." And finally, there was her meeting with the Queen: "It was so wonderful and noisy that what she said got drowned. But it was great to see the Queen's lips moving and know she was talking to me."