"I've always thought that you sort of peak at two ages in tennis - at 18 or 19, when you haven't had a chance to explore all the possibilities in your life or your tennis, including the possibility of failure - or else much older, when you're more mature as a person."

Virginia Wade

Who's afraid of Virginia Wade?

Professionally, nearly all of her colleagues are these days. Long one of the most electrifying but erratic of tennis players, the 31-year-old Englishwoman has found that maturity as a person has brought consistency to her game.

Wade is a more predictable player now, but far more fundamentally solid in both technique and tactics. She has few losses these days except to the top handful of players and ranks No. 3 in the world, behind only the women tennis prodigies of the '70s, Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong.

"I definitely think that you either reach a peak at about 19 or else it takes a lot longer, at least for a woman. I'm not sure about the men," says Wade, whose handsome, high-cheekboned face oozes a kind of sensuous intellectualism and whose bright, penetrating eyes reflect her moodiness, ("They're blue usually . . . but sometimes gray and green also").

"It's such a time of change for any individual, in their own personal and self-knowledge, from about 20 to 27, that it sort of interrupts their tennis," she said, you're such a different personality at 19 and 29.

"It depends on the type of game you have as well. Very basic, steady games are going to mature earlier, while more versatile games take longer to develop."

Historically, she points out, this has been the case. Superstars with backcourt styles such as Helen Wills, Maureen Connolly and Evert have been teen-age phenoms, while those like Wade who play attacking, all-court games take more time to make everything jell.

Billie Jean King, for instance, never won a national junior title.

"Martina (Navratilova) was very good young, but I think she might have missed her early peak," said Wade. "She has a great aggressive game, but that can let you down under pressure at 18. And I don't think that a bad thing, because if you peak at 18 you have a lot to live up to the rest of your life.

"As a teen-ager you definitely aren't aware of your own limitations. You havent' got anything to lose so you go right ahead and try to do the impossible. Later, when you have all that reputation to sustain, that's when you get a fear of losing."

Wade doesn't remember precisely when she acquired a fear of defeat - she thinks she always loathed it, but that's quite a different thing. She attributes the fear largely to the pressure of being tabbed early as the Great British Hope. Especially after she won the U.S. Open in 1968 at age 23, the British press and public expected her to become their national sporting heroine, and to behave accordingly.

The British value valiant and gracious losers, perhaps even more than winners. When Virginia lost and behaved badly - seething, pouting and exploding instead of smiling bravely through defeat - she was severely chastised, and the criticism affected her deeply.

"I always reckon that I had a winner's temperament, but I had so much rubbish from the press that they changed me to a loser's temperament," she says. "I was pretty temperamental on the court, but that was totally misunderstood. It was always held as a negative point, and people thought I was spoiled. They didn't realize I was a perfectionist."

Wade is the youngest of the four children of a conservative, tight-knot upper middle-class British family. She spent most of her childhood, up to age 15, in South Africa, where her father was the Episcopal Archdeacon in Capetown and Durban.

It is surprising, given her traditionalist bent, that she earned her degree in math and physics from Sussex University, which in the '60s had the reputation of being quite radical, the Berkeley of Britain.

"I wasn't terribly happy at Sussex," she said. "I chose the wrong university and read the wrong subjects, which shows that at 17 I was too immature to know what I wanted to do.

"I think I would have preferred English and philosophy, perhaps. But I was thinking the other day that I should have studied engineering. I would have been a good engineer, though it's more fun being a tennis player. I was good at math but it is so terribly abstract. I would have been better off with something more practical."

That is exactly the kind of transformation she has achieved in her tennis. From her earlier days of playing shots that were beautiful in the abstract but terribly impractical from the standpoint of winning points and matches, she has become a percentage player. Only in her spirited practice sessions does she try the impossible.

Like most things that are important to her, tennis has never been just an interest, or later a profession, so much as a passion for Wade. She plays accordingly, all flash and fury, fire and ice, cracking the ball hard in a never-ending search for power with control.

Somewhere along the line - when she reckons she matured as a person, about four years ago - she decided she liked to win as well as play beautiful tennis.

"I realized the game was getting much tougher and decided that if I was going to go on playing. I was going to play well. Otherwise what the point?" She described the turning point in her career. "I couldn't be happy losing to people I thought I should beat. Basically, I made more of a commitment."

"I've tidied up my game quite a bit and eliminated the scraggly edges," says Wade. "Therefore I'm much more positive."

She works on her game as an engineer would taking specific areas and rebuilding them in intensive practice sessions. "I like to practice really hard, with a lot of movement, for a relatively short time," she said. "I work on one thing at a time, then another. That way I don't get bored or jaded."

At the moment, she is concentrating on her serve, lowering the toss and trying to eliminate a drift to the left. "It got so messy last year that I went back to my 17-year-old serve."

"It's much better now . . . my second childhood," she said. This time she does not intend to miss her peak.