Evonne Goolagong: Given its relatively modest population in comparison to other countries that have produced exceptional sports champions, Australia has contributed an uncanny number of just not proficient, but brilliant tennis players.
Names such as Laver and Rosewall immediately spring to mind when the subject of great tennis players arises, and students of the game and its history are quick to mention Roy Emerson, Neale Fraser, Lew Hoad and Tony Roche.
More modern times have contributed Lleyton Hewitt and Patrick Rafter.
Australian women have also made a large impact on the game, with top level players throughout the decades, with Margaret Court’s name (What name could possibly be more appropriate for a tennis player than Court?) frequently mentioned. Samantha Stosur is also certain to be mentioned.
Arguably the greatest on the women’s side of the draw, however, is the subject of this piece. Does anyone not know that we are talking about Evonne Goolagong Cawley? So significant was she during her prime that tennis caller Bud Collins expressed anxiety that her 1975 wedding to Roger Cawley would deprive the tennis world of the most colourful name, Goolagong, to ever take the court, an anxiety that subsequently proved groundless.
Evonne Fay Goolagong (31 July 1951) was the third of eight children of an indigenous family initiated by Kenny and Melinda, members of the Wiradjuri people.
She was raised in the small country town of Barellan, a part of New South Wales well into the interior and due west of Canberra. Given the discrimination the aboriginal people often encountered in the early 1950’s coupled with the somewhat elitist aspect of tennis itself, it is quite probable that Goolagong might never have had the opportunity of playing tennis were it not for the kindness of a Messr. William (Bill) Kutzman, who invited Evonne to have a go when he observed her peering longingly through the fences of the local Barellan courts.
This story of Evonne Goolagong’s introduction to the game is considered somewhat apocryphal, but regardless of how she actually got her start, Goolagong showed the type of potential to attract, in 1965, the attention of no less a tennis notable than Sydney tennis school operator Vic Edwards. So enamoured was he of her talent that he spared no effort in persuading her parents to support a move to Sydney, a move that her parents endorsed due in no small part to the educational opportunity afforded for their daughter to attend Willoughby Girls High School. Evonne Goolagong graduated from the school in 1968 whilst living with Edwards and benefitting from his coaching skills.
That combination of talent and coaching prowess supplied the world of tennis with one of its most significant contributors.
She was only three years removed from the Willoughby Girls High School and just shy of her 20th birthday when she was to capture the crown jewel of tennis, Wimbledon, in 1971. Earlier that season, she had won the previous installment of the tennis Grand Slam, the French Open, something that has been done by only the greatest of the great, since there exists such a vast difference in the fast grass courts of The All England Tennis Club and the slow French clay of Roland Garros Stadium. She also made it to the semifinals in the Women’s French Open Doubles that year.
Despite this relatively early success at the top level of professional tennis, it would require another four years for Evonne Goolagong to achieve the ultimate award in the Australian Open, but once she did, in 1974, she would back that with wins in 1975, 1976 and 1977. She did win Australian Open doubles titles those same years to go along with her first Doubles title in 1971.
A second Wimbledon Singles title was to follow in 1980, which was noteworthy for the span of time involved. That type of longevity is not common in a sport such as tennis where the physical demands on the body are notoriously problematic for veterans. It was also the first time a woman player returning to professional tennis after time away to have children won since prior to World War I.
Possibly the only blemish that could possibly be assigned to the professional tennis career of Evonne Goolagong is that she failed to win the U.S Open, despite making the Final on four consecutive years from 1973 to 1976.
Her first loss was to fellow-countryman Margaret Court, the second was to Billie Jean King and the final two were to Chris Evert, so it must be mentioned that no fluke upsets were involved and it was only three of the greatest players in women’s tennis history that were able to deny Goolagong a career Grand Slam.
An interesting facet to the career of Evonne Goolagong is that her play in 1976 was so superior as to earn her the number one ranking in the world, but incomplete data was used to calculate the rankings. Over 30 years were to pass before this error was discovered in 2007, and for what it is worth, tennis fans that appreciated accuracy would have been grateful that Goolagong was still alive when the omission was discovered.
She and Roger Cawley eventually wound up in Noosa Heads, Queensland, were with the help of her daughter Kelly, she runs tennis camps.
She has been recognised for her contributions to Australian sports through a trophy named for her that is awarded to the to the Women’s champion of the Brisbane International. She was named Australian of the Year in 1971, was appointed an MBE in 1972 and was made on officer in the Order of Australia in 1982. The Sport Australia Hall of Fame followed in 1985 and the International Tennis Hall of Fame came along in 1988.
Anyone who recalls some of the epic battles betwixt Evonne Goolagong and her arch-nemesis Chris Evert will justifiably say that the two staged some of the most thrilling, well-played matches in the history of the game.
Those matches and others, along with Goolagong’s triumphant and dramatic return to world-class professional tennis after time off to have children, make her an undisputed member of the list of All Time Greats.