Evonne Goolagong was not born into tennis royalty with a gold plated racquet, fancy outfits, and private lessons at a posh country club. Furthermore, she didn’t matriculate her game with a used wooden racquet on public courts. Her introduction to tennis has perhaps the most humble origins in tennis history, yet she overcame major stumbling blocks to become the No. 1 player in the world, won 13 majors and ranked 12th all-time in championship wins.
Goolagong grew up in the wheat town of Barrellan in New South Wales, one of eight children. Her mother Melinda was a homemaker and father Kenny a sheepshearer. Their simple one-story home was a tin shack with dirt floors and no electricity. But moreover, Goolagong was born into Aborigine heritage, the only family of its kind in town, and as light-skinned members of the Wiradjuri tribe, the Goolagong kids faced prejudice, and faced a cloudy and uncertain future. The Australian government’s policy at the time was to forcibly remove Aborigine children from their families and relocate them to camps where they could be properly educated and integrated into white society.
“Every time there was a shiny car, my mum must have worried if was the welfare people coming for her kids,” Goolagong has explained in many media interviews when the topic of her Aborigine roots was questioned. “We had no idea. We thought the welfare man was there to take us away.”
Goolagong’s first racquet as a youngster was made from a wood fruit box that resembled a paddle – it was absent of any strings. For hours on end she would hit a ball against any flat surface she could find. A young Evonne was spotted peering through a fence at Barellan War Memorial Tennis Club by club president Bill Kurtzman, who asked her if she’d like to join in. Had Kurtzman not made the gracious and human offer, it’s likely her road to the Hall of Fame, let alone a revered place in history as a two-time Wimbledon Ladies Singles champion (1971, 1980) and keeper of four straight Australian Open Singles titles (1974-77) would not have materialized. Word obviously traveled fast, as renowned Sydney-based tennis coach Vic Edwards was tipped off to the prodigy and made a 400 mile trip west to the wheat-farming country to see what all the fuss was about. Even as a developing player, Goolagong had the grace and movement on court that would be a staple of her splendid career. Edwards was enamored with Goolagong, whose name is Aboriginal. He persuaded her parents to let him take the 14-year-old to Sydney for schooling at Willoughby Girls School (where she completed her School Certificate in 1968), coaching, and boarding. She became part of his family in 1965, with Edwards protecting her from racial slurs, as she competed in big city tournaments, teaching her to believe in herself and talents. Edwards instilled confidence in Goolagong and prepared to her to become the first non-white to play in apartheid South African in a tournament in 1972. At age 15, Goolagong won the New South Wales Championship and in 1967 competed in her first Australian Nationals.
Goolagong would compile an illustrious resume, appearing in 26 major finals (18 singles, six women’s doubles and two mixed doubles), capturing seven singles, five doubles and one mixed double championship. Overall, she earned 72 singles, 45 doubles and three mixed doubles tour championships and compiled a 704-165 (81 percent) singles record. During the 1970s, Goolagong was a household name and face – attractive, carefree, and admittedly prone to lapses in concentration that caused folks to say “Evonne’s gone walkabout.”
Goolagong was graceful, almost poetic in how beautifully she played the game. Not only did tennis fans marvel in her smooth and effortless movements, but her opponents could also get caught in the ballet that was on the other side of the net. “She was like a panther compared to me,” said Billie Jean King after losing to Goolagong in the semifinals of the 1974 Virginia Slims Championship at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. “She had more mobility and she played beautifully. I started watching her, and then I’d remember all of a sudden that I had to hit the ball.”
In 2005, Martina Navratilova told Sports Illustrated, “She was such a pretty player. She didn’t serve-and-volley, she would sort of saunter-and-volley.”
Goolagong preferred a baseline game that observers said was reminiscent of Ken Rosewall's – her backhand was classically stroked liked Rosewall’s with slice and accuracy. Her groundstrokes were precise and fluid, balls struck hard each time. “She can be down love-40, apparently beaten, and she’s still trying to hit winners,” Margaret Court told the New York Times. “She won’t play safe tennis, and her shots are quite unpredictable. They’re likely to come back in any direction. The harder you hit the ball to her, the more she likes it. It’s best to slow the game up, rather than try to outbelt her … and she loves a wide ball … she’ll have a crack at anything.”
At the 1971 Australian Open, Goolagong lost to her idol Court in three well-played sets, 2-6, 7-6, 7-5. At the French Open, the No. 3 seeded Goolagong won her first major singles championship, defeating fellow Aussie and unseeded surprise finalist Helen Gourlay, 6-3, 7-5. It helped that No. 1 seed Court and No. 2 seed Virginia Wade were eliminated in the third and first rounds respectively. Goolagong didn’t face a seeded player until the quarterfinals, No. 6 Françoise Dürr, and squashed the native favorite, 6-3, 6-0. A few months later, her tennis dream came true when she decisively defeated Court to win Wimbledon, 6-4, 6-1. “To beat Margaret Court … I was over the moon about winning,” Goolagong said. Outside of defeating the defending champion Court, Goolagong needed a huge semifinal, 6-4, 6-4 victory over King to advance. She nearly became a repeat champion in 1972, but King evened matters with a decisive 6-3, 6-3 victory in the final.
“It was the age of nine that I dreamed about winning Wimbledon,” Goolagong said, appearing as a guest on the television news program Where They Are Now Australia in 2007. “I read this cartoon magazine story called Princess Magazine, about a young girl who was found, trained and taken to this place called Wimbledon, where she played on this magical center court and eventually won. Every time I went to hit against a wall I used to pretend I was there, and every time I went to sleep I would dream about playing on that magical court”
Goolagong made her Wimbledon debut in 1970, and at the time, just stepping inside the hallowed All England Club may have seemed like heaven for the Aussie, but she had unfinished business ahead. “I remember a cocktail party the night before Wimbledon started and the head of Dunlop (Goolagong’s racquet sponsor) took me out on court when there was no net, just deep silence,” Goolagong recalled. “I said, ‘Wow, I am here … my dream has come true, I am really here.’ I remember playing a girl named Peaches Bartkowitz – what a name – an American top player who beat me pretty convincingly (6-4, 6-0). When I got off the court my coach said, ‘maybe I better enter you into the “plate” event for second and third round losers, that way you’ll get used to the atmosphere, the crowds, the court. I played in that and ended up winning it.” The following year, the fairy tale came true with the cherished victory in London and Goolagong ended the 1971 touring season as the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year.
Wimbledon had a love affair with Goolagong, who dubbed her “Sunshine Supergirl” and she long maintained that the crowning moment in her career came at Wimbledon in 1980, when she defeated Chris Evert in the final to become the first mother since Dorothea Lambert Chambers to accomplish that feat in 1914. The nine years between championships matched Bill Tilden for the longest gap between titles in history. “After I defeated Margaret Court at Wimbledon in 1971, I found out later she was pregnant and I thought, ‘so that’s why she played so badly,’” Goolagong joked. “Of course I was pregnant in 1980 and was so thrilled to have won again.”
Goolagong captured the Australian Open four times and three consecutively (1974-76), defeating Evert (7-6, 4-6, 6-0); Navratilova (6-3, 6-2) and Czech Renata Tomanova (6-2, 6-2). The three-peat at Melbourne has only been accomplished by Court, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, and Martina Hingis. Goolagong also appeared in six consecutive finals (1971-77), a record shared with Hingis and stands alone in total finals (7), achieved from 1971-76. Three of her wins (1975-77) came without losing a set, a remarkable mark shared only with Graf. The only asterisk on her championship-filled career was the U.S. Open, where she was a finalist four consecutive times (1973-76), and unable to claim a championship, though the 1973, 1974, and 1975 defeats all came in tightly-contested three set matches against Court, King, and Evert.
Goolagong was nearly perfect in doubles, winning seven major tournaments; 1971 Australian with Court, 1974 Australian and Wimbledon alongside American Peggy Michell; 1975 Australian with Michell; 1976 and 1977 Australian with compatriot Helen Gourlay. She won the 1972 French Open Mixed Doubles Championship with Aussie partner Kim Warwick.
Goolagong made history in October, 1974. As a 23-year-old, she won the third annual and season-ending Virginia Slims Championship played at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. She upset King in the semifinals, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 and then upset Chris Evert in the final, 6-3, 6-4. She earned $32,000, equal to the top cash prize in the history of women’s tennis. Goolagong also won the season-ending Slims in 1976, again defeating Evert. She was a finalist in 1978, losing to Martina Navratilova. She ranked in the Top 10 for nine years. She married Roger Cawley in 1975 and added the surname while still on tour.
Nagging injuries forced her into retirement in 1983. She moved to South Carolina, where she became the touring professional at the Hilton Head Racquet Club. The family purchased 70 acres and built a 20-court tennis center. She began working with Tennis Australia and launched the Evonne Goolagong Getting Started program for young girls.
For her service to tennis, Goolagong was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1972 and Officer of the Order of Australia in 1982. Home! The Evonne Goolagong Story was published in 1993. Since 2005, she has run the Goolagong National Development Camp for Indigenous girls and boys, which uses tennis as a vehicle to promote better health, education and employment.
Source: Tennis Hall of Fame