Evonne Goolagong

Evonne Goolagong by Rex Bellamy

From Love Thirty: Three Decades of Champions, by Rex Bellamy

Evonne Fay Goolagong had two unusual names. The Evonne happened because her mother wanted something different, instead of the familiar French spelling. Goolagong means ‘tall trees by still water”. Her father was an itinerant sheep shearer and farm hand and she was one of eight children brought up in the bush: the rolling wheat and sheep country noth of the Murrumbidgee River. They lived in a tin shack on the outskirts of Barellan and were the only Aboriginal family in the vicinity. Fishing for yabbies, small crayfish, was fun for the children? But there was no money to throw around and they were a long way frol the tennis scene. They were a long way from most scenes.
It might have stayed that way – goodness knows what Goolagong would have been doing now – but for a local initiative that produced the War Memorial Club, equipped with four tennis courts. That happened in 1956 when Goolagong was five years old. The courts could not have been nearer home and within a couple of years she was acquiring a taste for the game.

Destinity took her by the hand again when London-born Vic Edwards, who ran a huge coaching operation from Sydney, was induced to include Barellan in his network of week-long tennis schools held in bush towns while children were on holiday. The two coaches assigned to Barellan insisted that Edwards himself should have a look at Goolagong and he flew hundreds of miles to do so. Edwards was impressed by her movements, reactions, and ball sense – that innate judgement of a ball’s speed and bounce on which timing depends.
She was nine then. Two years later she made her first trip to Sydney for intensive coaching and at 13, in 1965, she moved in with the Edwards family. Edwards became her legal guardian, assuming responsibility for her education on and off court. But Goolagaong retained close ties with her own family and with Barellan, where local residents dipped into their pockets to subsidize her career. She was already winning age-group championships and in 1970 she became Australian junior champion without losing a set and went on her first overseas tour. Edwards, a hearty bear of a man, was to travel with her as coach, manager, and surrogate father until 1976, by which time Goolagong had matured and married and was assuming an independent life style.

Edwards thought she could win Wimbledon in 1974. But in 1971 Goolagong surprised him. She surprised everybody. In January she led Margaret Court 5-2 in the third set of the Australian final but was afflicted by cramp and could no longer do the running Court demanded of her. A month later she beat Court in the Victorian final. Over to Europe, where Goolagong won the French championship at the first attempt without conceding a set and then beat Nancy Richey, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court in consecutive matches to become Wimbledon champion. At the age of 19, on her second trip overseas, the brown-skinned lass from a tin shack in a bush town had won two of the game’s four major titles.

Evonne Goolagong, Wimbledon 1971

Goolagong did not find it easy to build on that, partly because her toughest rivals had worked out how to play her, partly because her game veered wildly between splendour and mediocrity, and partly because she was not greedy for glory. She lost 11 of the 18 Grand Slam finals she played. That was hardly surprising, because the players who beat her were King (four times), Court and Chris Evert (three each), and Virginia Wade. At the same time one could not resist a frivolous line of logic: Goolagong loved playing tennis, had to win in order to enjoy another match in the next round, but was deprived of that incentive whenever she reached a final. She was a determined competitor but tended to value the game more than the prize. She was not in the same class as King, Court and Evert when it came to a concentrated, total commitment to success.

In 1971, though Goolagong demonstrated in an exciting and charming way that Australia had at last found a player who could escape from Court’s long shadow. Several almost made it, notably Kerry Melville, Helen Gourlay, and Wendy Turnbull, who between them played seven Grand Slam singles finals. The only winner was Melville, who picked up an Australian title when Goolagong and Court were missing. The best performance was Turnbull’s. She beat Rosie Casals, Wade, and Martina Navratilova before Evert stopped her in the 1977 United States championships. Karen Krantzcke and Judy Dalton (formerly Tegart) won the Federation Cup for Australia in 1970, Dianne Fromholtz showed a promise that was never quite fulfilled, and Kerry Harris was good enough to test most players. All were delightful company on the circuit but none could rise to the same heights as the country girls from New South Wales, Court and Goolagong.

The 17-year rivalry between Evert and Navratilova has obscured the memory of Evert’s memorable clashes with Goolagong in the early and middle 1970s. They first played in a semi-final during Evert’s Wimbledon debut in 1972. The quality of the tennis was patchy but the spectacle had the fresh beauty of youth and was spiced by the contast between Goolagong’s free-flowing aggression and Evert’s crisp and concentrated baseline game. Goolagong was a set and 0-3 down but then moved into ‘the zone’ and won. Grass suited her game better than it suited Evert’s. Goolagong invested profitably in short, low balls to Evert’s two-fisted backhand.
In 1974 Goolagong twice produced an avalanche of attacking shots to take a 6-0 set off Evert in a Grand Slam match: first the Australian final, then a US semi-final. Goolagong won both. The Forest Hills match was remarkable in that, with Goolagong leading 6-0 and 4-3, play was rained off and was not resumed until two days later. In the US final Billie Jean King came from behind in the third set to beat Goolagong 3-6 6-3 7-5. Both were in form and this was the most exhilarating match these two played. Evert and Goolagong overlapped the era of Court and King (both over 30 by this time) and also that of Navratilova, who popped into the news in 1975, at the age of 18, by reaching the Australian and French finals before her progress was halted by Goolagong and Evert in turn. Goolagong married Roger Crawley four days before the 1975 Wimbledon championships. She won tough matches against Virginia Wade and Court but in the final was on the wrong end of what King then intended to be her last Wimbledon singles. King’s aggressive performance was as close to perfection as she could get; and the listless newly-wed, always on her heels, scored only 24 points in their 38 minutes on court. That year the US championships were transferred to a gritty surface. Goolagong did not find the long rallies much fun and, having led by 7-5 and 4-all, could take only two more games from Evert in the final.

Evert and Navratilova were to dominate the game for more than a decade but Goolagong won two more Australian championships – both against moderate opposition – and later made a memorable comeback to win Wimbledon again. She also played a thrilling final with Evert at Wimbledon in 1976. They had such complimentary styles that, in their own way, they were as entertaining as cross-talk comedians. A feast of tennis was inevitable whenever they met – as long as Goolagong’s mind was on the job. By 1976 Evert had plenty of grass-court experience behind her. Using the forecourt more than usual, she mixed her tactics astutely and won a two-hour match by 6-3 4-6 8-6. Evert gave Goolagong a pasting at Forest Hills – Goolagong’s fourth consecutive defeat in the US final – but by that time the Australian had something more important to think about. Eight months later, in May, her daughter was born.

Goolagong bounced back to form so fast that in December she won the last of her four Australian championships. She began to have a few problems with her health and after her advance to the 1978 and 1979 Wimbledon semi-finals (first Navratilova got in the way, then Evert) it seemed unreasonable to expect much more of her. But Goolagong was merely clearing her throat for a Wimbledon swan-song that was to echo down the years.

Evonne Goolagong Holding Daughter Kelly

In 1980 Goolagong was feeling frisky. All the old magic had returned, plus a maturity that was particularly evident in her assurance on the forehand. In the Wimbledon final she beat Evert 6-1 7-6. Goolagong was not so much playing rallies as painting pictures: and the visual impact of her brushwork was, at times, breathtaking in its artistry. Evert made a good scrap of it, winning four games in a row and keeping the outcome delicately balanced. This was the first Wimbledon singles final decided by a tie-break game. Goolagong was the first mother to win the title since Dorothea Lambert Chalmers in 1914 and the only player except Bill Tilden (1921 and 1930) to regain a Wimbledon singles championship after nine years.

With that, the party was over. But the farewells went on for a while. Her last-post match handshake in a Grand Slam tournament came from Evert after she had beaten Goolagong in the 1983 Franch championships. By that time goolagong and her husband had a second child, a son, and were soon to settle in Evert’s home state, Florida.

On and off court, Goolagong was among the most gracious, blithe, and winsome of professional athletes. The joyous innocence of the little girl who used to fish for yabbies in the outback never lost its freshness. Her ever-ready smile suggested that she was having more fun than most people – which was true, in the context of competitive tennis. She was a renowned dressing-room vocalist and, even on court, often had a song on her mind (which helps to explain why her concentration was fickle). Goolagong just felt like singing: because life was good and she was happy, especially when running and jumping and hitting a ball, which seemed the natural thing to do. A giggle was never far from the surface. Her attitude simultaneously charmed and puzzled those intensely edgy opponents who thought that winning mattered more than enjoying the tennis and cut-and-thrust of competition. She preferred to win, but could take defeat in her stide almost as easily.

Goolagong’s nature was not entirely to her advantage as a match-player. Wayward concentration was one of her three frailties (the others, for most of her career, were her second service and her forehand). She was more prone than most players to let her mind wander – she could even forget the score – and to be nonchalantly resigned when her game was not working. So her tennis, usually a dream, was sometimes a nightmare. Making an analogy with the itinerant habits of her Aboriginal forebears, we used to joke about her walkabouts. The positive side of her competitive temperament was that she was less vulnerable than others to emotional stress.
The outstanding features of Goolagong’s instinctive attacking game were her movements and her facile volleying. Fast, agile, light on her feet, she simply flowed about the court, raising images of that TV commercial in which some model in a white nightie bounded gracefully along a beach without making any visible contact with the sand. In terms of technique and tactics Goolagong had an imaginative flair for improvization. Some of her loveliest strokes were conceived in the darkness of temporary adversity. Usually, though, her natural gifts were most vividly evident when that robust 5ft 6in figure was bouncing and swooping into a volley after a first service or a chipped backhand had paved the way. Technically, there was nothing flashy about her game. No tricks. Nothing affected. She was not that kind of woman. Just an uncomplicated, wonderfully accomplished athlete and ball player who was having fun playing tennis. And the fun was infectious.

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