- Keith Gregson
Virginia – Champion at Ashbrooke (and Wimbledon!)
Only three English ladies have won the ladies’ singles championship at Wimbledon since the Second World War – Ann Haydon Jones, Angela Mortimer and Virginia Wade. The first two also won the ladies’ singles at the annual Sunderland and Durham Open Championships at Ashbrooke in the 1950s; Virginia Wade completed the set in 1966.
Tennis and the Sunderland and Durham Championship both have a lengthy link with the Ashbrooke Club and ground. As noted in an earlier blog, there was already a tennis club in Sunderland when Ashbrooke opened in 1887 and there is a membership book for 1886 in the archives, which suggests that players were then playing at nearby Thornhill Terrace.
The Sunderland and Durham Championships were used regularly as a preparation for Wimbledon in the years before the professional tennis era. One final in the 1950s was between the two golden boys of British tennis – Billy Knight and Bobby Wilson. Other Ashbrooke regulars included Davis cup player Don Butler and both the parents of well-known late twentieth century tennis star ‘Buster’ Mottram.
In 1966 the Sunderland and Durham Championship had its regular date moved due to football’s World Cup. Reading about sport in Sunderland in the ‘Echos’ for that summer is interesting as the tennis becomes lost among events taking place at Roker Park and down the road at Ayresome Park in Middlesbrough. Nevertheless it is clear that the ladies’ singles entries for 1966 were formidable. In the final Virginia Wade, still an up and coming youngster defeated another English hopeful Elizabeth Starkie 6-3, 6-4. En route to the final, she had also had to see off talented New Zealander Gail Sherriff.
The 1966 ladies doubles finals were described in the Echo as ‘a feast for spectators’ and ‘the best ever’. Miss Wade and her defeated opponent Miss Starkie combined to take on the South African/Rhodesian pairing of Glenda Swan and Pat Walkdon. The English ladies lost in a close match.
Ashbrooke regular Alan Mills defeated Australian Greg Bluett in the 1966 men’s final. Alan was a Wimbledon regular and later in life gained fame as a Wimbledon official and the man who settled disputes and decided when rain stopped play.
By the middle of the 1960s, the Sunderland and Durham championships had seen their best days and professionalism eventually ensured that ensuing contests were less star-studded (with apologies to current Ashbrooke members who have since won silverware in the competition).