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Looking Back at a Legend... Evonne Goolagong

With a game that was poetry in motion, this most dignified of champions never lost sight of the things that really matter.

Published August 24, 2010 12:00

Looking Back at a Legend... Evonne Goolagong
Evonne Goolagong Cawley

Weeks at No.1: Two...19th on all-time list
Tour Singles Titles: 68…5th on all-time list
Grand Slam Singles Titles: Seven…Equal 12th all-time (8th in Open Era)
Career Match Win-Loss: 704-165 (.81)

Would Evonne Goolagong Cawley have risen to the top in the wham-bam, cutthroat world of 21st century tennis? Possibly not. So for that reason tennis lovers can only be glad she came along when she did, at a time when when her fluid, graceful style and winsome demeanor could flourish.  

Goolagong hit the big time in 1971, when she captured the French Open and Wimbledon at the expense of fellow Australians Helen Gourlay and Margaret Court. Armed with a particularly sublime backhand slice she appeared to float through matches, the pure joy of striking the ball seemingly more important than the ultimate victory or defeat. Her backstory was just as compelling - and only added to the aura that surrounded her.

The third of eight children, Goolagong grew up in Barellan, New South Wales, a wheat-belt town with fewer than a thousand inhabitants. Her father, Kenny, was a sheep shearer who borrowed a tennis racquet from an employer's wife so that the young Evonne could hit balls against the wall of a local shop.

This drew the attention of Bill Kurtzmann, a retired grazier who invited Evonne to take lessons on the clay courts at the War Memorial Tennis Club next to her home. Impressed, he contacted a renowned Sydney-based coach, Vic Edwards, to invite him to see Evonne play. This Edwards did when she was nine - and blissfully unaware. Two years later, Goolagong went to Sydney to work with Edwards for a couple of weeks, and when she was 13, with her parents' blessing, she moved in with his family - with Edwards as her legal guardian. She arrived in the city with a suitcase and clothes paid for by Barellan townsfolk, who had also agreed to cover her living expenses.

While Goolagong would later tell of the deep pain the separation from her family caused - a story all too familiar to Aboriginal people at the time - it was also a rare opportunity. Without such a step it is unlikely she'd have fulfilled what was rapidly looking like destiny. It was a test of her mettle, and she proved she was far tougher than she looked.

The Glory Years

Goolagong won the national junior title at 16, and made her international debut two years later, in 1970. Such was the fanfare that her second round match at Wimbledon, which she lost to Peaches Bartkowicz, was played on Centre Court. But the experience served her well, and having pushed Court in the final of the 1971 Australian Open, she duly became the first woman since America's Althea Gibson - another player who had to cope with additional scrutiny because of her race - to win at Roland Garros on her first try.

Shortly after she handled the clay-grass switch with aplomb, granting defending champion Court just five games in the final at Wimbledon. Goolagong returned to a ticker-tape parade in Sydney, and proceeded to spend the next decade in the game's elite. Indeed, despite earning a reputation for lacking the killer instinct and going 'walkabout' during matches - a term applied to her lapses in concentration but alluding to the nomadic lifestyle of Australia's first inhabitants - she built a record that stands out as one of the most consistent of the period. Maybe she should have won more, but she still won a lot.

Goolagong reached 18 Grand Slam singles finals, 17 of them in the 1970s - no player, man or woman, contested more major finals across the decade.

After falling to Billie Jean King in the semis at Wimbledon in 1973, she didn't fail to reach the final of every Slam contested for another five years, until 1978 when she was beaten by eventual champion Martina Navratilova at the All England Club. She won the Australian Open four years in a row, from 1974-77 - a run neither interrupted by her marriage to Englishman Roger Cawley in 1975 nor the birth of her first child, daughter Kelly, in May 1977. She also holds the more dubious distinction of being the only player, male or female, to lose four consecutive US Open finals (1973-76), the first two to Court and King, the latter two to the player who was her greatest foil, the über-focused Chris Evert.

Mother Of All Wins

The 18th, and last major final Goolagong reached famously came at Wimbledon in 1980. After dropping the second set of her semi against second-seeded Tracy Austin, 6-0, fourth-seeded Goolagong recovered and then took on No.3 seed Evert in the final, holding off a late surge by the American to win, 61 76. The triumph made her the first mother to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish since Dorothea Lambert Chambers in 1914, and would become the defining moment of her career. Not until Kim Clijsters' won at Flushing Meadows in 2009 did another mother capture a Grand Slam title.

Goolagong's final haul of 68 Tour singles titles included wins at the Virginia Slims Championships in 1974 and 1976, the year she held the No.1 ranking for two weeks - a fact that was only belatedly attributed to her, when a computer error was discovered in 2007. She also won six Grand Slam doubles titles, and one mixed. Having given birth to a son, Morgan, in 1981, her swansong was at Roland Garros in 1983 - curiously, she hadn't played there for a decade - where Evert again got the better of her, in the last 32. By this time Goolagong had won 40 percent of all the tournaments she'd played, and more than 80% of her matches.

Until 1992 the Cawleys lived in the US, where Evonne was touring pro at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Then they relocated to Queensland, in Australia. As well as indulging her lifelong passion for fishing, Goolagong spent time as the country's Fed Cup captain, and remains involved in tennis camps and education programs for young Aboriginal people. In February 2008 she was an appropriately high profile presence at Parliament House in Canberra when Australia's then-prime minister, Kevin Rudd, delivered an historic apology to the Aboriginal people for injustices committed under two centuries of white settlement.

And in 2009 she was on hand when Barellan honored her by erecting a giant replica of her signature Dunlop racquet - a kitsch, but heartfelt tribute, not just from a town, but a nation.

Notable H2H: vs. Austin 4-4…vs. Barker 7-2…vs. Casals 12-1…vs. Court 2-3…vs. Durr 3-0… vs. Evert 12-26… vs. King 4-12…vs. Melville Reid 5-1… vs. Navratilova 12-15…vs. Wade 30-10

Click here for a gallery of Goolagong Cawley's glorious career.
What have Evonne's former rivals and other insiders said about her?
Read all about Evonne's Big Racquet in Barellan!

To submit a fan tribute for Evonne, email alincoln@wtatour.com. Click here to read what others have written.

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