She was 16, just a schoolgirl, when she played her first match there. She'd won her first-round match and had drawn Ann Haydon, Great Britain's top player, in the second round. "I was coming down the steps at home," Virginia Wade said, recalling the moment as if it had happened just yesterday. "My father had a newspaper open and he said to me, 'Oh, you play on Centre Court today.' I nearly fell down the stairs. I called up and said I wouldn't be coming to school that day."
The year was 1962.
The score was 6-3, 9-7.
Of the match, Wade recollected that she "served pretty well."
Of the setting, Wade said she "felt it was a pretty nice place to be."
That was the first of many matches on Centre Court for "Our Ginny," as they call her in the British press. Over the years -- and they are just a week shy of 40 now -- she has, she admitted, "been embarrassed" out there, "felt panicked" out there. But she also has gained such glory out there. In 1977, in front of Queen Elizabeth, Wade, at 31 and in her 16th attempt, won the women's singles title in Wimbledon's centennial, after so many years riding those rough, frustrating waters of being this country's one great hope in tennis, a closing act if ever there was one.
But today was the final curtain.
As she had been doing since this tournament began, Wade again gave every indication that she'd not play singles here anymore, that being the sentimental favorite wasn't enough. And even though she lost on Centre Court to Pam Shriver -- keeping the circle unbroken by going out as she came in -- Wade was not at all chagrined with her exit music. By losing, 6-2, 5-7, 6-2, she had given Shriver, the fifth seed, the "scare" she'd declared was her intention. She'd taken a better player to the limit on Centre Court and stepped lively toward the door.
"How can I feel sad?" she asked.
No regrets, she said.
"I enjoyed myself thoroughly."
In fact, Wade implied that she really had not wanted to beat Shriver, that a good loss was what she went out there in search of, that her storybook ending was, as she happily said afterwards, "to play one of the top few seeds, and play on Centre Court and put on a reasonable show." Case closed.
Certainly, Our Ginny had her chance to keep the headlines churning. Shriver had dropped the second set, playing too politely, and at 1-2 in the third, 30-40 in the fourth game, was at genuine risk of going down a service break. Wade had not dropped her own service in her last three turns, seemed fresh, capable and, as usual, had all of England rooting for her, cheering her every success and groaning her every falter. Shriver could well have been knee-deep in alligators. "I think," she said nervously, "if I'd gotten down a break in the third that I wouldn't want to be there."
The critical shot, at break point, was Wade's to make, and she muffed it, netting a backhand return of serve. She netted the next two as well, backhands, letting Shriver climb back onto dry land at 2-2. "It might have been exciting if I'd won the break point, but I didn't," Wade said cheerily. "Then she played too well." Shriver broke Wade in the fifth game, closing it with a forehand winner off service, then won eight of the next nine points to go up, 5-2. From there, it wasn't who would win the match, but when.
In the locker room, Wade would tease Shriver, telling her, "If I'd made that return at 1-2, you'd have gotten really nervous." But the reality was that Wade wasn't ready psychologically to make the return. Wade not only is not now the player she once was -- now she is not the player she might be. She does this on a part-time basis, and her No. 77 ranking is more a testimony to her deep reserve of talent than her current dedication. "Basically," Wade explained, "I've been playing tournaments when I've felt like it. But I'm not really motivated, and I couldn't concentrate. If I'd win one match, then I'd have to come out the next day and try to win another one. It wasn't working. I thought I shouldn't even bother to play Wimbledon. But since I had a birthday coming up, I figured I'd make an effort to finish. The timing was right."
Later, when recapitulating the crucial point of the match, Wade's true feelings would underscore her recent ambivalence. "The reality was that I had not anticipated winning. One thing I felt is that I can win this match, but I'm not really prepared to."
So Shriver, who has had a memorable tournament already -- having beaten a Bodysuit (Anne White), a Brit (Anne Hobbs) and a Brit-Legend (Wade) -- now moves on to play a Baby (16-year-old Steffi Graf) and, if successful there, the Behemoth (Martina Navratilova). And Wade moves on to semiretirement. "Oh, certainly there'll be times when I'll wake up and feel, 'Wouldn't it be great to be out there on Centre Court again?' " she allowed. "But that's fantasy. I've got to think about reality."
Well, not quite yet.
First there was a little matter of the bottle of French champagne that was brought into the interview room, given to Wade courtesy of The Daily Mail. As Wade took the bottle by its lovely neck, she asked, "Who's going to share this with me?" She worked the cork out and poured some glasses for the press. "Here's to all of you," she said, lifting hers. "Cheers!"
Virginia Wade was followed immediately into the interview room by Jo Durie, Britain's top-ranked player, known now, and surely for the length of her tenure as this nation's one great hope, as "Our Jo."