One of the first of many endorsement deals proffered to Virginia Wade in July was Excedrin P.M. It was typecasting. Ginny had finally been cured of Headache No. 15—that was the number of years in a row she had let down her fellow citizens by losing Wimbledon’s hallowed All-England Lawn Tennis Championship. Though Britain’s leading woman and in the top five in the world—she’s one of the favorites in the U.S. Open beginning at Forest Hills this week—at Wimbledon after Wimbledon, the London press dragged out the old headline GINNY FIZZ. Less polite writers might have suggested GINNY CHOKE. “I had given up a little bit on winning it,” she reflects back to July. “Of course, I also realized that this year was the tournament’s centenary and the Queen would be there, which she usually isn’t. I thought it would be a pretty good year to win.”
Indeed it was. Ten days before her 32nd birthday, Virginia Wade stood before Elizabeth II as Queen of Wimbledon after upending defending champ Chris Evert and defeating Betty Stove in the finals. The headlines changed unimaginatively to GINNY TONIC. Her burden at last lifted, Wade spent an effervescent summer playing World Team Tennis for the New York Apples, compiling the third best singles record in the league. She also grooved her clay court game—Wade’s booming serve, the best in women’s tennis, is more effective on grass—for Forest Hills. She had won there in 1968, before the claylike surface was steamrollered through.
Along the way, Wade has begun to resurface her own image. It premiered at Wimbledon, thanks to a Vidal Sassoon hairstyle supplanting her severe look of old. “I was thinking about a cut for a long time,” she says. “I guess I just got fed up with long hair.” That decidedly more feminine appearance—combined with the victory—has made Wade more bankable on Madison Avenue. Besides the Excedrin gig, she is endorsing PRO-Ked sneakers, Scripto pens and Rolex watches, doing TV commentary for CBS at Forest Hills and even dickering for a movie part (“I don’t know whether I’m suited to that or not”). In addition, there’s a fat six-figure Apples pact and the $150,000 she’s already earned on tour this year.
The “new Virginia,” she insists, is not merely cosmetic, nor is it the manufacture of supermanager Mark McCormack (who also handles Vitas Gerulaitis). Wade is still given to tantrums when her game goes blooey. But she flashes her sensuous smile more often and claims to be “much more relaxed” on court. “I try to use my flare-ups positively,” she asserts. A friend relates: “This year, on the day of the Wimbledon final, a bunch of photographers waited for her. Five years ago she might have dumped a pail of cold water on them. This year she let them take a few pictures.” Also behind her is a fixation over esthetics, a preference for hitting platonically “beautiful” shots rather than possibly more awkward winners. Now she claims, “I’ll compromise much more to win. I’m so much better technically that I can adjust my game.” And relocating to New York from London two years ago for tax purposes (she still keeps a flat back home) has benefited her in other ways as well. “In England the press puts too much pressure on an athlete,” she explains. “Here, the people with guts win, while those who make excuses don’t make it.”
Sarah (“I never used that name”) Virginia Wade’s early years seemed pressure-free. Born in Bournemouth, England, she was the youngest of four athletic kids of an Episcopal archdeacon who took the family to Durban, South Africa when Virginia was a year old. At 9, she began playing tennis and entered tournaments “because I wanted a scrapbook.” Another aptitude was for mathematics, well suited to what she calls her “practical, logical brain.” The family moved back to England when Virginia was 15, and she took a degree in the subject at Sussex University. Although the idea of going into engineering school “has entered my mind,” she concedes, “it hasn’t stayed there very long.” Still, she has maintained other cultural interests unexpected on the Virginia Slims circuit: theater, opera and classical music. Wade’s favorite composer is, in fact, Rachmaninoff. His Second Symphony helped her make it through the morning before the Wimbledon final. (Also, she smothered the phone with a pillow.)
Today in Manhattan Wade declares she finally feels “very free. In England I always felt I had to be on my best behavior.” Broadway Ginny she isn’t. Wade shares a small, knickknack-littered apartment on the Upper East Side with Mary Lou Mellace, an American TV-commercial actress she met a few years ago. They sometimes travel to tournaments together. When home, Wade patronizes “the little neighborhood places with low-key, un-snobby atmosphere. I hate pseudo-elegance.” Her hectic routine, she says, precludes even visions of family, and her siblings “have produced enough little Wadelings so I don’t have to contribute. I’d love to have children,” she muses, “but I don’t know if I could settle down to being a housewife.” As for current romances, Wade declares, “My dating life is not important enough to talk about.”
Tagged early in her career as a loner, Virginia concedes, “It is hard to be close friends with my competition. But also,” she adds, “you get so closeted in the tennis atmosphere that you prefer to get out of it a bit.” Her chums include artists, writers and members of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Characteristically, though, her as yet untitled autobiography is singles. “With most athletes’ books, you can tell it isn’t themselves writing,” she reflects. “A ghost writer would mean a difference of opinion and a bruising of relationships.” Besides, she thinks the tale of a vicar’s daughter who needed 16 tries to capture her Holy Grail “is much more interesting than the story of someone who had a ‘normal progression’ where you win a few tournaments, and then win Wimbledon. People can identify with the trouble I went through.” But looking back on it, wouldn’t she rather have spared herself the headline hassle by winning Wimbledon, say, five years ago? “Noooooh,” laughs Virginia Wade. “I eventually got there. Of course,” she observes, “you can cut it a bit close at times.”