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MIKE DOWNEY

It's a Somber Day for England's Wade

September 01, 1997|MIKE DOWNEY

NEW YORK — Virginia Wade, the Episcopal archdeacon's daughter who 20 years ago won the Wimbledon tennis championship with Queen Elizabeth II occupying the royal box, was returning home from dinner to her Manhattan apartment late Saturday night when the doorman asked, "Have you heard?"

Princess Diana is dead, he said.

"I thought he was joking," Wade said of her reaction. "I thought it was a sick joke."

To her horror, she learned otherwise. The princess--a loyal tennis fan, a royal friend--had just lost her life in a car crash in Paris. Wade went upstairs, watched television for hours, grieved over Diana's death, heard the gruesome details.

A few hours later, on Sunday morning, Wade, 52, still a British subject, was back at work at the U.S. Open, which she won in 1968, where she provides commentary for various television networks, among them the BBC.

Off camera, Wade wondered what was responsible for the death of the Princess of Wales, Dodi Fayed and their driver. More disturbingly, she wondered if Diana could herself have been to blame.

"I mean, it just shouldn't have happened," Wade said. "Obviously, she had to deal with paparazzi all the time, but they weren't pointing a gun at her.

"Obviously, somebody of the two of them, she or Dodi, lost their cool, popped their cork. I mean, I can't imagine that she would have put herself in such a life-threatening situation."

Still ashen-faced, Wade shook her head.

She said, "I mean, the poor driver. He wasn't, like, a police driver. I guess if she [Diana] had been driving, she's a fast driver, she might have known what she was doing. But I suppose if there was tension and anger and somebody snapped . . . well, I guess that's what happened."

The tennis world--like the rest of the world--was shaken by the news that Diana was dead.

Some of the U.S. Open's participants were reminded Sunday of their own brushes with fame and misfortune. Monica Seles, attacked once in Germany by a knife-wielding stranger, recounted a separate incident when two motorbikes pursuing her through the streets of Paris smashed into her car.

"We were trying to lose them," Seles said, unsure to this day why her car had been tailed.

Andre Agassi--whose wife, actress Brooke Shields, and Fayed were once romantically linked--said he has long resisted taking drastic measures to avoid celebrity photographers.

"In all honesty, Brooke and myself have remained very responsible to not allowing people to take our heart, to take our life, to take our plans for that evening and change them," Agassi said. "If I didn't feel like breaking the speed limit, I wasn't going to.

"Looking back at the tragedy last night, I thank God that that's not been a temptation for me to do that. But I can certainly understand the feelings that go along with that."

Diana's was a familiar face to many players from the pro tour. Whenever possible, she played tennis once a week, occasionally with Steffi Graf. The princess once confided to Graf that she had a mild crush on German star Boris Becker.

At Wimbledon, in Wade's words, Diana "was the life and light of the royal box."

Wade won that hallowed tournament in 1977, on her 17th try, to become the toast of the empire. Later, she became the first woman elected to the Wimbledon Committee, which paraded Wade forth as part of a 100th anniversary tournament celebration. That is when she first encountered the princess.

"Weren't you self-conscious walking out there with everybody watching you?" the bashful princess asked.

"No, that was a kick for me," Wade replied.

Diana, so vulnerable, was someone who asked Wade how she coped with fame. Diana, so vivacious, was someone who upon spotting Wade in a London shoe shop sprang to her feet and called out a greeting, excitedly. Diana, so enchanting, was someone who always spoke to you, according to Wade, as though she were your dearest chum.

To the kingdom's queen of tennis, Diana was a woman of the people, a person tall of stature who never looked down on a soul.

"To my mind, she was just a fantasy person," Wade said. "If you could dream up how you would like a princess to be, it would be Diana."

Had this accident happened during Wimbledon, the tournament's Sunday play would have been canceled, and possibly the entire tournament, Wade speculated.

Asked if photographers had ever hounded her, Wade said, "I'm just such a mini-star. It's been a magnificent experience for me. It's been wonderful. But I'm not sure that I'd like to be president of the United States, or be Princess Diana. I don't think that I would. I mean, I value some privacy."

Virginia Wade, confidant of a princess, bereaved British subject, stepped out into the bright Sunday sunlight.

Three women ran up to her. One asked, "Could we take your picture?"

Wade posed with two of them. She smiled, graciously, while the third snapped the photo.

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