Winning Wimbledon surely would have been different for Arthur Ashe and Virginia Wade, two of the most popular champions of recent years, if they had captured the ultimate prize in tennis earlier in their careers, when people expected them to do it.

Their triumphs were so emotional, so richly sentimental, partly because they came so late in their athletic lives, after their chances seemingly had vanished. Ashe won in 1975, Wade in 1977. both days before they turned 32. They have the same birthday: July 10. It may have been in their stars.

They come from such totally different backgrounds - Ashes the son of a black parks policeman in Richmond, Wade the daughter of a well-to-do English clergyman who became the Episcopal Archdeacon of Durban. South Africa - that it is astounding to consider how much they have in common. intellectually, psychologically and historically.

The parallels came to mind when they both came to Washington this week. Ashe was here Tuesday night to accept the Service Award of the Washington Area Tennis Patrons Foundation at its annual dinner. Wade was the guest of honor at a luncheon yesterday promoting the Virginia Slims of Washington, Jan. 28, in which she will compete with 31 other women for a $100,000 prize purse.

They both won Forest Hills in 1968, the first year the U.S. Championships admitted professionals and became the U.S. Open. Ashe was 25, Wade 23. Both were immediately strapped with the burden of Great Expectations, intensified because each immediately became the standard-bearer for an entire people. Ashe was the lone black in a white man's world, Wade the Great British Hope. They were never allowed to forget that, and the pressure, though sometimes unspoken, always was brutal.

For a decade they labored near the top of the tennis world, but never reached the Pinnacle that had been declared theirs for the taking at a tender age. Year after year they were among the top five players in the world, but never No. 1. They won clusters of tournaments, including such important ones as the Australian Open (Ashe in 1970, Wade in 1972), but not the most important.

They both had technical limitations, it was decided: a suspect forehand, and a game that was at once untempered and predictably patterned. The criticism was valid. They were both "slashers" who would go for a breath-taking winner whether or not the tactical situation called for such a shot.

Ashe became "Arthur Avis," the perennial bridesmaid. Wade became "Our Ginny," crashing annually in a spectacular blaze of "Wimbledon nerves," fighting valiantly and losing, as if to remind the adoring British public that the Empire was in eclipse.

Eventually they were written off, and only then did they win. If it had happened any other way, their victories could not have been so ecstatically fulfilling.

"I feel tremendously more at peace with myself for having won it," Wade said yesterday. "My life has changed somewhat; if you ever want to get recognition, about the easiest way is to go out and win Wimbledon. Then everybody knows who you are . . . Only people in tennis knew me before, but if you win Wimbledon everybody knows.

"It seemed to make a lot of people happy, and I don't think I'll ever come down from that cloud of having won Wimbledon, because it endorsed a whole lot of strong feelings I had about everything else, and I feel much happier about myself."

"The great thing about Wimbledon," she had said earlier, "is that obviously it's what every tennis player's dream of from the moment they ever take seriously to the game. For me, that was at about 9 years old. I felt I had to keep pushing and driving myself to win this championship.

"The great thing is that now that I've won it, I can do what I feel like doing - which I think is probably try to win it again and become the No. 1 player in the world."