It was a glimmering year. The silver on the Wimbledon plate reflected the celebrations taking place across the country in honour of HRH Queen Elizabeth, who was presenting the revered prize for the first time in twenty-five years. Ginny, as she was affectionately known by the nation, raised the plate victoriously above her head as the triumphant racket of For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow filled centre court.
“Wade champion at last” read the headlines. With the Australian and US Opens already to her name, Virginia had been the only British hope for the last sixteen years and it was at the stage where no one thought she would pull it off.
“I was getting very much to the point in ’77 that this could well be last chance. People always say there’ll be another year but suddenly you realize that you begin to physically ‘off’ a little around the 31-32 age. I had managed to remain tremendously physically fit but your recovery rate slows. A really exhausting match and you’re stiff the next day so I was thinking, this really is my last realistic chance.”
One set down in the final, the score was three-all before Virginia finally put the crowd out of their misery, winning seven consecutive games to clinch the second set. With the pace now set she finished the third with an assailable 4-0.
“I was pretty confident in the final against Betty Stove; I had a very good record against her. I’d fought hard and disciplined myself in a lot of previous situations when I could have just given up and lost so I knew if I hung in there, she probably wouldn’t be able to beat me.”
“The semi-final against Chris Evert was the more critical game. She’d won the tournament a couple of times and was just such an incredibly tough opponent but with a tennis championship, it’s not just one thing, it’s the whole thing. That year, I’d been so much more thorough and well prepared. I knew my objective was to win and if I lost the first set, it just meant I had to fight harder and win two more.”
Virginia is still the only British female to ever win Wimbledon. The only other Brit to clinch the title was Fred Perry back in 1936, so the pressure to win was enormous.
"There was always a lot of pressure but oddly enough, Su Barker was doing very well in 1977 so she diverted some of the pressure away from me. She also did very well at Wimbledon that year going out in the semi-finals."
"It made a big difference having somebody to share the pressure with. You could just get on and do your business and this is why I felt sorry last year for Tim last year with all that pressure put upon him. I think they always put too much emphasis on a Wimbledon champion but in many ways it’s helped having Greg around.”
Twenty-six years on, the accolade from the single day in June hasn’t waned, but living with the epithet has shifted over time for Virginia.
"It's funny how ones perspective of it changes as time goes by. Obviously it’s been such a critical thing for me as far as everything has been concerned with my career, but the difference it really does make to one’s feeling of oneself and what happens to us. It’s interesting the way one’s whole life can actually be related to it.”
“The strange thing is and in a bizarre sort of way, because there hasn’t been another British champion for so long, I suddenly start getting what used to happen with Fred Perry. Your popularity should wane the longer it is, but funnily enough, it seems to hit you in the forefront a bit more. I haven’t really lost any of my identification.”
Her identification remains because she’s never left the game. Virginia continued to play Wimbledon until 1987, notching up a record twenty-six years in all. She’s involved in teaching clinics, American television and has been a BBC commenter since 1981.
In 1982 she became the first and only woman ever elected to the prestigious Wimbledon Committee and she is currently Director of the Lawn Tennis Association Council, responsible for the professional game.
“I just think how very lucky I’ve been in the last twenty-five years because I’ve had a wonderful post-career career, managing to keep playing and do all these game related things. It’s also given me tremendous opportunities to meet interesting people and benefit in ways which are both materialistic and more than that, inwardly exciting."
In spite of all these achievements, Virginia remains terribly modest. She’s no stranger to the tennis top ten, remaining there for thirteen straight years from her 1967 debut, but the woman who was the number 2 in 1968 and is currently number 4 on the all time victory list with 839 match wins nonchalantly replies, "not bad", when you quote her statistics.
“I honestly think I was probably capable of doing better. We were very much on our own learning to play tennis in the 60s and 70s. There wasn’t the same sort of understanding about the game and we were only just beginning to get the availability of people to help with the mental side.”
"I fell through the cracks in my tennis education and have always felt a little regretful of that. I would have been more stimulated to have learnt what I knew from 1974-1977, and onwards from there. If only I had been able to mature a little earlier. Somehow it’s getting the mindset right. It becomes this whole panic thing, ‘I’ve got to do well’ instead of just getting on and doing it.”
“I hated losing and was a good fighter but I was probably a bit afraid of winning, so I could have also benefited from some correct thinking.”
Her competitive streak appears to underpin everything she does and you can’t help feeling that it’s personal failure she dreads more than anything else.
“I see so many people who are just torn between what they want to do and they are talented people in lots of aspects but maybe I was just good enough that I knew. You have to compare yourself with your age group and I was probably always reasonably successful so I knew it was worth making the effort because I was going to do well.”
“You have to go out there and look for what’s right for you. Sit down, work it out, decide which way you are going to go with it and give it a full chance.”
“I also believe, and this is based on my personal experience, that commitment is a very empowering thing. I was always afraid to commit myself to playing tennis because I thought I’d be stuck, lose my spontaneity, be boring and all the rest of it, but once you make the commitment it sort of allows everything to open up. It’s like being scatty before and afterwards, everything starts blooming. Make a commitment and you’ll derive much more freedom and empowerment.”
Born in Bournemouth, Virginia grew up in Durban, South Africa, returning to the UK when she was fifteen. Hating the weather and learning to adjust to the culture she studied mathematics at Sussex University, but it was clear from an early age that the girl who admired Brazilian tennis player, Maria Bueno was meant for tennis.
“As soon as I picked up the racquet I didn’t want to do anything else. I really did want to play.”
“I was at university in Sussex and there were no indoor courts there at all, so I had to go up to London three times a week and the only place we could play was Queens which was cold and damp. You’d get so bored. It’s not very motivating playing in those conditions, but once summer came it was much better."
"I could never stop going though; tennis just does something for me. Even today I feel like I don’t want to play, but I just love the game.”
Virginia’s passion for tennis didn’t end on the court. She and other female players were responsible for starting the Women’s Tennis Association and the British Women’s Tennis Association.
“I wish I could say I had done more but it’s quite difficult to do those things when you’re playing. I also think that the year 2000 would have been a perfect time to even up the prize money."
"The players are all so good, you can never say one game is better than another because next year it may be the other way round. They work just as hard, have just as many responsibilities in today’s world. It’s a feeble argument to say that because men play five sets they should be paid more but then there are lots of feeble arguments.”
“Today, there should be equal prize money at the same event. Women’s tennis pulls in a lot of spectators, it’s a good game and at the same time you’re encouraging young girls to participate and feel they have an equal place in society.”
It’s not only the number of spectators that has changed women’s tennis significantly in the last twenty years.
“It’s just got a more and more powerful game. Obviously a lot of that is the equipment but it is also because everyone is stronger. It’s become more one dimensional; it’s about power so even if you can manipulate the ball around, strategic tennis doesn’t really come into it, so obviously the people who are stronger are going to do better."
“The Williams sisters have been fantastic as far as pulling attention to the woman’s game. They really have spurred a lot of interest in people who weren’t quite as aware of women’s tennis so its done a huge amount in that respect. I don’t think it's going to do too much for the game if they are in all the finals though, but do you know what? I can’t see them both hanging around the game that long so we’ll see. I just think Venus in particular gets a little lack lustre about being there. They sort of want to do other things, you know, they’ve been there and done that.”
Luckily for the sport, it’s seems highly unlikely that Virginia will ever leave the game, or lose that ambitious instinct of hers.
“I’m at an interesting age where I’m very keen to do things and I have the luxury of not having to worry too much about it. Actually, I love to play golf. It’s still hard to play enough and I probably wouldn’t want to be playing it all the time. I also have a very relaxed attitude about it, I’m playing a bit better and enjoy it, but I don’t put any pressure on myself for that. Except I want to be as good as I can.”
Rachael Hannan: Interview 2003
Published in Viva magazine and on 50connect.co.uk