A Reminder: Britain's Last Wimbledon Champ Won 36 Years Ago, Not 77

Andy Murray is the first British man to win in 77 years, but in 1977, Virginia Wade won a title for the home team on the tournament's 100th birthday.
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The United Kingdom is rejoicing, as Scotland's Andy Murray has beaten Serbia's Novak Djokovic to claim his first Wimbledon men's singles title and end the U.K.'s long title drought in his division. Many of the headlines around the world have blared out sentiments like "Andy Murray wins Wimbledon, ends 77-year British drought" and "Inspired Murray ends 77 years of British hurt."

However, let's not forget that 2013 may mark the first time a British man has won in 77 years, but the last time a Brit won a singles title at their home Grand Slam tournament was actually just 36 years ago. And as Wimbledon singles finals go, that one was a pretty big deal, too.

In 1977, the popular Englishwoman Virginia Wade finally put a crucial win at the end of a frustrating "try-try-again" story even longer than Andy Murray's. On that day, Britain tossed aside its famous keep-calm mantra just like it did this weekend, as Wade claimed the Wimbledon title for the British on the tournament's 100th anniversary. She was handed the Venus Rosewater Dish by none other than Queen Elizabeth II.

Wade had won two Grand Slams and been seeded at the previous 10 Wimbledons—but had famously never made it past the semifinal round of her home tournament. She finally made her breakthrough when she upset the World No. 1, American Chris Evert in a three-set battle in the semifinals. Just two weeks shy of her 32nd birthday, she then moved on to the first final played between two over-30 players since 1913—and with her 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 win over 32-year-old Betty Stove of the Netherlands, she became the fourth woman in the second 50 years of Wimbledon to win the tournament. (In its first 50 years, a number of British women won, as back then it was less common for foreign players to enter the All-England Club's annual tournament.) Wade credited her victory to having found new control over her on-court temper.

This year's crowd at the All-England Club was, of course, overjoyed to see Andy Murray win his first Wimbledon title and break the British losing streak in men's singles. But in 1977, Wade's victory was no less celebrated: The day after, the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote that Wade had "won her first Wimbledon title at age 31 Friday in front of Queen Elizabeth and a wildly happy, singing British crowd," and that

[h]undreds of fans had slept on the sidewalks all night for standing room. The center court has seen better finals, but nothing quite as emotional. For the crowd, it was the perfect climax to the centenary Wimbledon tournament and an unexpected extra item in the queen's silver jubilee celebrations. They waved union jacks, cheered the queen and Virginia, and sang "For She's a Jolly Good Fellow" as the champion held the silver winner's plate aloft.

At Wade's final match, the Queen was in attendance at Wimbledon for the first time since 1962. She wasn't known to be a fan of tennis, but Wade mused during the tournament that perhaps she could "turn the Queen on to tennis." Alas, maybe not: Though the Queen, dressed in pink and white, came down onto the court to present the trophy to Wade after her historic win, she didn't return to the All-England Club until 2010—when she attended a match between Murray and Finland's Jarkko Nieminen.

Wade mused that perhaps she could "turn the Queen on to tennis." Alas, maybe not: The Queen didn't return to the All-England Club until 2010—for an Andy Murray match.

Murray and Wade's post-match remarks show that there's a distinctly British way to win Wimbledon: politely, flabbergastedly, and a little cheekily. Just like Murray, who apologized to an on-court interviewer today for being unable to remember any of what had happened in the last few points of the match, Wade found herself a little dazed—"I won't get drunk tonight," she told reporters, "I'm already drunk without drinking"—and struggled to maintain a proper British stiff upper lip during the trophy ceremony. Later, Wade said that as she received the salver from the Queen, the two women "talked a bit, but I wasn't at my most articulate."

Wade also surprised some who knew her for her modest manners, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

"I looked around the dressing room and I felt this week I was the strongest person there. I had the most guts. I felt," she said fiercely, "it was my tournament and my match."

And like Andy Murray, whose Britishness/Scottishness remains hotly debated (see the Andy-Murray-o-Meter if you've ever wanted tongue-in-cheek updates on Murray's waxing and waning popularity in each region since 2005), Wade was also claimed by two nationalities at the time. Wade had an apartment in New York and played team-tennis tournaments for the New York Apples. But according to a Miami News story from 1977, her heritage (she was the daughter of a former Archdeacon of Durban) and her background (she had a degree in mathematics from Sussex University) signaled that Wade was "British to the core," and seemed "more comfortable sipping tea at the All-England Club than wine at a New York City café."

But on July 1, 1977, Virginia Wade wasn't just enthusiastically embraced as British—she was regarded as a British hero. "There was the queen handing me the trophy, and the people were all cheering and singing. I couldn't believe what was happening," Wade told reporters later. "It was like a fairy tale."

Thirty-six years later, with the British public's joyful embrace of a victorious Murray, the fairy-tale love story between the Championships Wimbledon and U.K. tennis has another happy ending.

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Ashley Fetters is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers entertainment.

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