Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
16. Virginia Wade
Years played: 1968–1986
Major titles: 3 (1968 US Open; 1972 Australian Open; 1977 Wimbledon)
“Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row,” the irreverent American said in 1980, in tennis’ most memorably self-effacing line. Three years earlier, Great Britain’s best-ever women's player missed her chance to beat Vitas to the joke. After her stirring victory at the Centenary edition of Wimbledon in 1977, she might have crowed to Queen Elizabeth II as she handed her the winner’s dish, “Nobody keeps Virginia Wade from winning her home Slam 16 times in a row.”
The Bournemouth native and sometime resident of Wimbledon village had been trying to break through on Centre Court since 1962. By 1977, she had reached the semifinals there twice and the quarterfinals three times, but that wasn’t a match for the success she had enjoyed elsewhere. Despite being overshadowed by legendary figures like Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong for most of her career, Wade had picked her spots and won more than her share of important events.
In 1968 she won the first tournament of the Open era, in her hometown of Bournemouth. That same year she upset King in the final of the first US Open. And in 1972 she beat Goolagong for the Australian Open title. Wade’s elegantly relentless attacking game, anchored by a biting one-handed slice backhand and springy, skilled net play, had taken her to the No. 1 ranking in 1973, and would help win her 839 matches and 55 titles over a 26-year career that spanned the amateur and Open eras. Wade was consistent, too; she finished in the Top 10 every year from 1967 to 1979.
Unfortunately, Wade also consistently came up just short at the tournament that meant the most to her. In 1974, she lost in the Wimbledon semifinals to Olga Morozova, 6-4 in the third set. In ’75, she lost in the quarters to Goolagong, 9-7 in the third set. In the ’77 semis, a few days before her 32nd birthday, Wade faced an even more daunting opponent in Chris Evert. The American would finish with a 10-2 record against the Brit, but this time, at last, destiny was on Wade’s side of the net. Playing what she called the match of her life, she upset the top seed in three sets. Two days later, she rode Centre Court’s wave of euphoria past Betty Stove for the title. On her 16th try, and on Wimbledon’s 100th anniversary, Wade had given her country a winner.
Defining Moment: When Queen Elizabeth II handed the Venus Rosewater Dish to Wade after her Wimbledon win in 1977, she said a few words of congratulations. Or at least Wade assumed they were congratulatory. She couldn’t hear them over the tumult coming from the audience. Wade didn’t mind, though; the fans were serenading her with the first words that came to their minds: “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
Watch: Virginia Wade wins 1977 Wimbledon title
Follow the men's and women's countdowns of The 50 Greatest Players of the Open Era throughout the month of February right here.
This Week on Tennis Channel Plus 2/12
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