For Wade, the game is still the thing Legends player laments fervor that is lacking today

May 19, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

As Virginia Wade remembers it, it was a boom time for tennis. In 1968, the professional game was organized, and everyone wanted to play. Club tennis was the mainstay, as young adults between the ages of 25 and 35 went to play and brought their children along.

And for those who enjoyed women's tennis, Wade was one of the favorites. She was tall and willowly and spoke with a stylish English accent. And she was good. She won the U.S. Open in 1968, the Australian Open in 1972 and Wimbledon in 1977, accepting her winner's plate from Queen Elizabeth II, who just happened to be celebrating her 25th year on the throne.

Wade still ranks third on the all-time victory list with 839 match wins.

Wade will be in town tomorrow and Thursday for the Virginia Slims Legends Tour at the Baltimore Arena. Recently, she lamented the passing of those old days, when tennis was such a popular game, but she said there is hope for revival in the current crop of young players that is battling for the top spots on the women's tour.

"Tennis went a little out of style," Wade said, as she waited to give a clinic recently at Greenspring Racquet Club. "Those ladies who used to come to the clubs are working now and slipping up to the gym for a quick workout. A lot of tennis players moved to golf and they haven't been bringing their kids to the courts.

"What changed the game was the equipment. The power game overrode everything else. It did away with strategy and tactics and it was detrimental."

The power game is still in use, but players like world No. 1 Martina Hingis like to use their slice backhand, an old shot, but viewed as new these days as the game turns back to its future.

When the Legends Tour comes to town, fans will get to see some of the best women's tennis players the game has seen: Wade, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Zina Garrison and Evonne Goolagong. And Wade said all of them can still hit the ball.

They play high-quality doubles tennis in this two-day tournament for a varity of reasons. It is the kind of tennis most fans play. And it is the kind of tennis that allows these women to show off their still considerable skills. Throughout the matches, they exercise their minds and develop strategies.

"The thing about playing now, is that I still love to play, and so do the others on this tour," said Wade, 45. "You don't know how much longer you can go on."

Enjoyment is what got Wade into tennis and she says if she could do anything, it would be to get masses of people to understand the joy that can come from the game.

"The fact is that I did well playing tennis," she said. "I got a lot of attention and won a lot of tournaments. But nothing ever took the place of the pleasure I got from playing tennis as a child."

It's one of the reasons she finds today's crop of professional players in both men's and women's tennis so disturbing. She said she'd like the game not to be "such a young person's game." She'd like players to be more like musicians or singers, to be able to benefit from life's experiences before they interpret the score.

"I think tennis should have that sort of meat and life to it," Wade said. "It's too easy for the kids. It would be nice to see what happens when they lose, to see them strive to get back. The way things go now, if things go off a bit, they just disappear."

Even though Wade said the competition on the court is more like it was in the '70s, "with a fabulous group of players, who are all different in nature and style," she said she is shocked by how easily and often today's young players will say how good they are.

"They don't have any trouble indicating how impressed they are with themselves," Wade said.

Billie Jean King, Wade, Evert, Navratilova and Garrison have had long moments in the spotlight. And though the light has faded, their popularity hasn't. It's why the Virginia Slims tour has been successful everywhere it has played.

"The players in the '70s had an aura about them, both the men and the women," Wade said. "And now we're all out there having a good time. [Today's players] don't look like they're enjoying themselves. We do. We talk to each other and to the fans and everyone has a good time."

Legends Tour

What: Virginia Slims Legends Tour

Where: Baltimore Arena

When: Tomorrow and Thursday, 7 p.m.

Tickets: Range from $25 to $50. Call TicketMaster at 410-481-SEAT.

Information: 410-296-2929.

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