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When Virginia Wade plays tennis, one thing is always there: intense excitement. To this fierce Englishwoman tennis is not merely a game, not merely a test of skills, it is excruciating emotional drama. For the desperate amateurs, with their dreams of impossible victories and capacity to crash out completely, she is a player to identify with. All the emotions they suffer on the court, she suffers—and suffers visibly. For them she is the last amateur in the big time, the last utterly human player, the last one like themselves.
Evonne Goolagong, who is an entirely different kind of player, can say, "The moment I step on the court and start warming up, I know then whether I'll win or lose." But Wade undergoes her nerve-racking inner struggle all through the match. Not until the last point is played can one know whether she will prevail or collapse.
When Wade does collapse, the spectator can feel her nerves taking off, her determination breaking, her concentration blurring, her coordination going out. When she prevails there is the special elation of one who not only has defeated an opponent but also has survived a tremendous inner ordeal.
For all her emotionalism and erratic temperament Wade may have the most technically complete game in women's tennis. She has won many tournaments, some big ones: the British Clay Courts this year, the Australian Open last year, the Italian Championship the year before and Forest Hills in 1968. She has won regularly enough to have been ranked among the top 10 women in the world each year for the past six years. And yet in the opinion of those who know her, she has not won her share.
" Virginia is a brilliant player," Margaret Court says. "She should have won so many more tournaments than she has. When she's on, she is hard to beat. But she is on and off." When she is off, few players can lose a match more disastrously, or more suddenly. At Nottingham last year she was up a set and leading Goolagong 9-8, 40-love on her own serve. The illusion that she was just about to win so excited her that she turned to jelly. She lost a total of five match points, lost the game, and Evonne breezed through the rest of the match.
"The thing about tennis," one male professional says, "is this: You have to sense the decisive points and be able to win them no matter what. When Virginia comes to these points it sometimes seems she doesn't recognize they're the ones she must have, or if she does recognize them she chokes and botches them. She is like Arthur Ashe. Both of them have the capacity to win everything and neither ever will."
A woman player has a different analysis. "She wants to make the flashy shot lather than the sure one. She's never willing just to dump the ball over the net. She's always got to be graceful. Her trouble is vanity."
Every year since 1961 Wimbledon spectators have watched Virginia undergo a catastrophe. Her opponents' names may be forgotten, for the catastrophes often have come in an early round, but one cannot forget Wade, her cheeks drained of color, the rest of her face flushed almost purple, scowling fiercely through this wild patchiness. She is hitting like a demon: hard, beautiful shots. She not only ignores but appears to despise what one might call the second-rate virtues—precision, steadiness, patience and cunning.
She screams when she makes an error. Sometimes she even appears angry when her opponent makes an error, spoiling what was going to be a perfectly played point. She gives no sign of playing to her opponent's weakness. She seems rather to be playing to her own grand conception of what tennis should be, as if she wants the match to be purified of bad line calls, purified of unforced errors, purified of all that batting about called "keeping the ball in play."
Like Bobby Fischer at the chessboard, Virginia Wade pursues absolute tennis, tennis which by its inner necessity will not only do that gross thing, win, but will also be recorded and remembered, stroke by stroke, as a great chess match is remembered. "But when I'm playing well," she says, "I think I play such boring tennis."