Chat with Evonne Goolagong-Cawley

In the most powerful and enduring memory I carry around of Evonne Goolagong- Cawley, the effervescent Australian is gliding across the 1970’s and on into the 1980’s, wearing a perpetual smile on her face, lifting the spirits of nearly everyone who crossed her path. Goolagong was an achiever of the upper class, securing seven major titles in singles, reaching No. 1 in the world during the 1976 season, winning everywhere it mattered with the exception of the U.S. Open. She was a shot maker of instinctive brilliance and creativity, a formidable competitor of undervalued determination, and a player who kept her sport in perspective. Above all else, Goolagong was a distinct individual with an innate charm and a gentle nature.

When I interviewed her recently over the telephone, Goolagong’s sunny disposition was still strikingly evident, and she giggled as easily as she always did in her prime. Evonne is 57 now, but her outlook is considerably younger. I explained that I was writing a career retrospective on her, and reminded her of the chance meeting we had 38 years ago. I had been in Paris for the French Open, and had seen Goolagong capture her first major that afternoon at Roland Garros. We were on the same flight back to London, where she would win Wimbledon in only a few weeks time.

As the plane landed and approached the gate, I looked across the aisle and noticed Goolagong sitting there with her coach and mentor Vic Edwards. Moments later, she got up and walked down the aisle, leaving a stack of Dunlop rackets in red covers sitting in the overhead bin. I grabbed the rackets, and caught up with Goolagong at the baggage claim area. “I think these belong to you,” I said. “Oh my God,” she said jovially, relieved to have her rackets back in her possession. Then she added with her thick Australian accent, “Thanks a lot.”

As I brought up this story in our recent interview, Goolagong laughed heartily. I asked her if that incident was symbolic of her happy go lucky nature. She was, after all, someone who always enjoyed herself and never seemed to take life too seriously. Goolagong responded, “I really did enjoy myself. It was my own little world out there on the court and no one could touch me. I loved the feel of it. I remember a match against Tracy Austin. I’m not even sure where it was that I was playing her, but she was beating Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova at that time. In practice with my husband Roger before that match, I decided I would stay on the baseline and just control the ball, not make any mistakes. So then I got out there for the match with Tracy and it was amazing. I didn’t hear any noise. It was like there was no crowd. I could see every inch of the court, the lines seemed so big, and I felt like I was in slow motion. It was the greatest high for me.”

At this stage of her life, Goolagong can reflect contentedly on her time as a champion. With her irresistible blend of offense and defense, Goolagong could do virtually anything on a tennis court. She had a few flaws, including a forehand ground stroke that could sometimes go astray, and a second serve that could often be attacked by adversaries with aggressive returns of serve. But she had one of the finest backhands the women’s game has ever seen, a sweepingly beautiful one-handed stroke that she could play with topspin or slice. Her first serve was excellent and deceptive. Immensely capable on the serve-and-volley, she had a backhand volley which ranks right up there alongside Martina Navratilova’s, Billie Jean King’s, and Jana Novotna’s as the best I have ever seen in the women’s game. Moreover, she could run balls down relentlessly with singular grace.

In this interview, Goolagong spoke about her unexpected triumph at Wimbledon in 1971, when she cut down the towering King and Margaret Court back to back for her first Centre Court crown. Goolagong believes her somewhat frightening debut at the All England Club in 1970 as an 18-year-old had paved the way for her success the next year. She played Peaches Bartkowicz—the unerring American with a solid two-handed backhand—in the second round, and much to her chagrin the match was put on Centre Court. As Evonne recollects now, “I got out there with Peaches, looked up and saw the crowd, and did not look up again. It scared the hell out of me. I wanted to get off that court as quickly as possible. It was very scary.”

Goolagong did indeed depart swiftly, bowing 6-4, 6-0 against Bartkowicz. But that same fortnight, she played in the now abandoned “Wimbledon Ladies Plate” event for first and second round losers, and was victorious. “I guess that helped me”, she says. “By the time I came back the next year I had won the French and I had also beaten Margaret Court for the first time back in Australia, so I was feeling pretty good. When I beat Billie Jean I thought maybe I had a good chance to win the tournament. Against Margaret in the final [Goolagong won 6-4, 6-1], I was thinking to myself,’ Gee, Margaret is not playing very well. She is a little bit off.’ I found out later she was pregnant. I understood better what it was like for Margaret in 1976, when I was pregnant with my [first child] Kelly. I played Chris Evert in the U.S. Open final [Evert won 6-3, 6-0 on Har-Tru], and you just really lose your timing, your feel and everything.”

Not surprisingly, Goolagong says her second triumph at Wimbledon was more satisfying. On that occasion, she defeated the top seed Tracy Austin in a three set semifinal and Evert 6-1, 7-6 in the championship match, which was no mean feat. “It meant so much more,” she explains, “because I did it as a mother. I remember an official at Wimbledon coming up to me after I won the final over Chris, and saying, ‘Did you know you are the first mother to win Wimbledon since Dorothea Lambert Chambers in 1914.’ So I made it into “Trivial Pursuit” for that. For some reason, I always found it easier to beat Tracy [Goolagong and Austin were 4-4 against each other] than Chris [Evert won 26 of 38 meetings with Goolagong], even though Tracy was very tough. Chris was always a very determined player who was not going to make any judgments about line calls. She was just going to do her thing. It was all about business with her, and I enjoyed playing her for that reason.”

Recording that second Wimbledon championship run nine years after first ruling on the lawns at the All England Club was a weighty accomplishment. But while good fortune went her way on the British grass, Goolagong was very unlucky at the U.S. Open. She made it to the final four years in a row (1973-76), but was beaten by three of the game’s all time great players—Court, King and Evert.

Court toppled Goolagong in a three set final on the grass in 1973. Then King narrowly escaped defeat in a spectacularly contested 1974 battle on the same surface, as the unwavering American recouped from a break down at 0-3 in the final set to win 3-6, 6-3, 7-5. Then Evert ousted Goolagong in a hard fought clay court encounter in 1975 (5-7, 6-4, 6-2). Finally, Goolagong lost to a top of the line Evert 6-3, 6-0 in 1976. Evert was in the midst of her record 125 match clay court winning streak so Goolagong was always going to be hard pressed to prevail, but being pregnant did not make matters any easier for the Australian.

Goolagong reflects, “Margaret [in 1973] was playing as well as she ever had and she was in top form then. She was just too tough. It was always tough to beat Chris on clay because she was a great baseliner and she used her head so well. But of those four finals, the one with Billie Jean stands out as absolutely amazing. I remember stopping at one stage after a long rally and thinking, ‘My God, what did we do just then? I can’t believe how good that rally was!’ Both of us were serving-and-volleying and lobbing and doing everything else. Once, I looked down at my arms and saw I had goose bumps. So it didn’t matter to me at that stage whether I won or lost because I felt it was one of the best matches I ever played.”

Coming within striking distance four years in a row and not being rewarded with a U.S. Open singles title was frustrating for Goolagong, but she speaks of that experience with both humor and humility. “I made it into ‘Trivial Pursuit’ again for the U.S. Open. The only other player who has lost four U.S. Open singles finals is Bjorn Borg, so I am in good company.”

Playing in the championships of her country at the Australian Open was a joy for Goolagong, who won the tournament four times from 1974 to 1977. What are her lasting impressions from those events? “Beating Chris in the 1974 final and Martina Navratilova the next year,” she responds. “They were two great opponents. In the 1974 final I won the third set 6-0 from Chris. I felt like I was in the zone and could not do anything wrong in that set.”

A close examination of Evonne’s record reveals that she advanced to a remarkable 18 finals in Grand Slam tournaments, and was beaten in 11 of those contests. But she could not be seriously faulted for her setbacks when you consider that she lost four of those encounters to King, three to Evert, three to Court and one to the dangerous Virginia Wade. It was an extraordinary credit to the Australian that she got to so many major finals.

The bottom line is that Goolagong was a front line competitor who realized most of her goals during her tenure in big time tennis. One of the primary targets she hit was attaining the No. 1 world ranking. That happened in the spring of 1976 after she won the prestigious Virginia Slims Championships in Los Angeles in a stirring three set final with Evert. Her reign at the top was brief, but that was inconsequential. Reaching the zenith of women’s tennis was another way for Goolagong to define her greatness.

And yet, for a long while, her accomplishment was lost in the shadows. The Women’s Tennis Association innocently and inadvertently lost the evidence of Goolagong’s 1976 time at No. 1 on the world ranking computer. In WTA media guides over the years, Goolagong’s name was always missing among the elite group who had made it to No. 1. But the industrious John Dolan of the WTA communications staff read Goolagong’s autobiography and noticed that she mentioned being No. 1 in 1976. Dolan went on a mission of sorts to find out the truth. He was inexhaustible as he searched far and wide for the evidence.

Dolan kept digging and digging until he got to the bottom of the matter and eventually found the information that confirmed Goolagong had indeed been the top ranked player in the world. At the end of 2007, 31 years after Goolagong had resided in the penthouse, Dolan was able to set the record straight for his organization, and now she is officially listed among the elite to realize that feat. Goolagong says, “I knew the whole time that I had been No. 1, but it was so nice that John did some good detective work and found out for sure that I had been officially ranked No. 1 in the world. It caps off my whole career. It was absolutely a big thrill for me.”

All through her career, Goolagong concealed her emotions and gave off an air of serenity on the court. She would go “walkabout” at times during matches, losing concentration, occasionally leaving a false impression of taking her business cavalierly. One of my favorite stories along these lines was a match she played against a mediocre American player named Mona Schallau in a relatively obscure event. Goolagong was on the brink of defeat, falling behind match point three times. But she got out of danger and found a way to win that match. Later, she was congratulated by reporters and friends for remaining so serene on all of the match points. “What match points?” she asked, not realizing she had been in that dire a predicament.

But the fact remains that she took considerable pride in how she fared in her profession. She may not have been as consumed by winning or have detested losing as much as King, Evert and Court, but she cared more passionately than most observers realized. “I just loved being on the court and trying to do things perfectly,” she says. “I think I had a quiet determination when I was out there. I was never a person to show my emotions. I sort of hated to see someone putting on a show on the court or going into antics or whatever. I mean, to me that was embarrassing. I was too busy having a good time, but at the same time I just did not like drawing attention to myself.”

I wanted to know if she felt there was a fire burning within her that was simply not seen by those on the outside. She responded, “Yes. It had to be for me to win so many tournaments [68 official WTA events] and all of those Grand Slams. I had to have that something extra. You can have some players out there that hit the ball really well and they look great but you wonder if they have it up in the head? I think I did.”

For a few years, Goolagong was the captain of the Australian Fed Cup team, but realized that role was not ideal for her. “I did it for just a couple of years and enjoyed it, but I felt like, ‘Oh, I wish I was playing.’ It brought back great memories of teamwork and playing for your country, something I enjoyed very much. I loved helping Australia win the Fed Cup. I just don’t think being captain suited me.”

These days, a good chunk of her time is spent on a venture she finds enormously appealing. As Evonne explains, “I am working with the best indigenous kids on ‘Goolagong Development Camp’. I go around Australia and this coming year I might be even busier with it. I will be working with Tennis Australia on ‘Getting Started’ programs and also state camps for Aboriginal kids. We eventually feed them into our national camp so Roger and my brother Ian and my daughter Kelly and I all go live with the kids when we do this. We have about seven young people who have tennis scholarships at big schools around Australia.”

Goolagong is too busy with other activities these days to spend much time observing the current players. She says, “Even when I was growing up on the tour I rarely watched tennis. I remember watching Rod Laver and Tony Roche play in Queensland [1969 Australian Open] and it was unbelievable. The other people I enjoyed watching were Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan in doubles. With today’s players, I like Federer and Andy Murray. There aren’t too many players like Murray who can hit topspin two-handed backhands and a good slice backhand as well. I love watching Serena Williams because she is so competitive.”

The interview was over, and as Goolagong said goodbye and hung up the phone, I could not help but believe she was smiling.

Originally Published Tennis Channel February 9, 2009

Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.