In the summer of 1980, I was 3 years old when my mother, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, won Wimbledon for the second time. As a mother myself now, I can’t even fathom how she managed it. Since then, we’ve seen players like Kim Clijsters, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka achieve great things on court with a family in tow, but let’s never say it’s normal – it’s amazing, and I certainly didn’t inherit the gene.
Being just 5 or 6 when mum retired from the circuit, I don’t remember too much from our days traveling as a family on the WTA Tour. That said, I do recall trying to sign autographs, innocently assuming that all of the people had come to see, well, me! I knew my mum was special, but I really thought people wanted me, too.
We had nannies with us on the road, but I never felt they were raising us. Mum and my dad, Roger, were always hands-on parents, and they took us everywhere they could. They still make a great team, perhaps because they are so different. Dad’s an organizer, very business-like, while mum’s the calm energy around him. They balance each other, and that’s the way it’s been most of their adult lives.
I was in high school when they announced we were leaving the U.S. and moving to Australia. I was shocked, at first, but the grown-up part of me knew this would be a good thing.
One of the reasons mum wanted to return home was because we didn’t know enough about our Aboriginal roots. I know I was very naïve, compared to my understanding of things now.
The Evonne Goolagong Foundation, which uses tennis as a vehicle for promoting healthy lifestyles and education for Indigenous youngsters, has been an important part our family’s journey. With it, mum has come full circle.
She grew up as part of the only Aboriginal family in the town of Barellan, New South Wales, but the locals did everything they could to support her tennis dream, from buying clothes to raising funds so that she could travel to tournaments. Through the foundation, mum is doing exactly what people did for her – giving kids opportunities and helping them develop the life skills to make their way in the world. Sure, she’s a well-known tennis star, but to see the effect she has on families around Australia is incredibly moving.
Being an Indigenous Australian in the spotlight, mum faced pressure to be political. But she always listened to her inner voice, and when she was younger she just wanted to play tennis.
Ultimately, this sport was her platform – and it gave her a special power. She has always had the capacity to bring people together, just by being who she is. A proud Wiradjuri woman, she continues to make a difference, and if she gets frustrated at times, she keeps it to herself. She’s such a positive person; she focuses on the impact she can make.
As a player, mum was celebrated for her grace and elegance on court. But you don’t win as much as she did without steel inside. As a child, she was sent to live with her coach in Sydney. She cried every night – but not once did she call up her family to say, “I want to come home.”
And somehow, on her first visit to Europe in 1970, she managed to win Roland Garros and Wimbledon, back-to-back, when still only 19. Fifty years later, we’ve loved watching Ash Barty’s fantastic run to the title at Wimbledon and her Fila scallop-dress tribute to mum – they share such a special bond.
Whether she learned it or it was ingrained, Evonne Goolagong has always been a pillar of quiet strength. She holds the family together. Somehow you always know she’s got everything under control. At the same time, she’s the most gentle, kind and generous individual – and as modest as you would imagine. She treats folks the same, no matter who they are. If people are staring in public, she doesn’t look away – she goes up to them and makes a meaningful connection.
It’s the same in more formal settings. Mum is unbelievably good at expounding on things. She never prepares for her public speaking engagements – anywhere, ever. She has this gift of talking from her heart so effortlessly. It's not contrived in any way, and people recognize that. That's another reason people adore her. She's a natural athlete – and a completely natural speaker.
When I think about how much mum is loved by Australians from all walks of life and tennis fans around the world, “proud” doesn’t even begin to cut it.
She’s an icon to so many, but she’s also the mother who played goalie for my girls’ soccer team in Noosa, Queensland – body pads and all. She’s the wife who signed up for a pro-celebrity golf event with her husband, an avid golfer – and stole the show by hitting a hole in one.
She’s a woman with a great sense of humor that has been passed on to my brother, who is the most hilarious person I know. I inherited her laugh, which I liken to a witch’s cackle – and it seems my daughter Lucy did, too. When we all get going you can hear us houses away, down the street.
Chris Evert tells the story of how she would find mum in the locker room with music on, chillin’ to the latest groove, while everyone else was so serious. True to that, mum taught my brother and me that whatever you are doing, you try to have a good time. Morgan became a National Soccer League player in Australia, but mum never put pressure on us to compete. She taught us that winning is a bonus – which I think is a pretty good lesson in life.
I feel an overwhelming sense of awe that Evonne Goolagong Cawley is my mother. She’s just the most beautiful person I know – the kind of human being the rest of us can only aspire to be.
Interview by Adam Lincoln.