Everyone was in their pristine tennis whites at the Albury Tennis Club when an Aboriginal man with a cigarette in his hand and a fedora on his head walked across the back of the court. Following him was an Aboriginal woman with a pram and six children walking in a row. “All the people who were playing just stopped,” says Evonne Goolagong Cawley. The Goolagong family had come to see their prodigy play but they didn’t know much about tennis – or its etiquette. “They didn’t realise they were on the court.” Later her father, Kenny, a gun shearer and a Wiradjuri man, put his fingers in his mouth and loudly whistled her. “And I heard him,” Evonne shrieks with laughter, “and I came.”
A lifetime later, we’re in a gated resort at Noosa, where there are grand Mediterranean houses with terracotta roofs, streets lined with neatly trimmed hedges and lush tropical gardens tended by flocks of gardeners. And there is that face, that famous face. It is a face that is etched into the national consciousness, part of the story of Australia: The humble Aboriginal girl from a tiny country town who, against all the odds, became the number one tennis player in the world. And did it with grace and humility; a symbol of hope for her people and pride for her country.
Evonne was only 19 when she first won Wimbledon in 1971 against her hero Margaret Court. Overnight she became a superstar. She’s told the story many times of how, as a nine-year-old, she read a story in Princess magazine about a girl who was found and trained and taken to this place called Wimbledon where she played on this magical centre court and won. When Evonne found out Wimbledon was a real place in England, “every time I hit the ball after that I’d pretend I was there”. Through the homesickness of an adolescence away from her family, “every night I’d go to sleep dreaming of playing on that magical centre court. Today they call it visualisation.”
On the historic walk to that fabled centre court in 1971, she saw, written above the doorway, the famous quote from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If: ‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat these two impostors just the same.’ “I remember thinking,” says Evonne, “‘oh, my mum and this man Rudyard would have gotten on very well’.”
Her mother, Linda, was a religious woman, unable to read or write, who had sung her eight children to sleep with hymns. “She was a very moral person, I never heard anyone in my family swear,” Evonne recalls now.
Linda famously made Evonne’s first tennis dress from an old bed sheet. “It was lovely and soft and she made it perfect, with plenty of room to move. And it was white because she boiled everything.” Her idea to paint Evonne’s shoes white with the lines marker from the tennis courts didn’t work quite as well. “They’d crack halfway through the day,” she chuckles.
Today, at 69, Evonne is still that artless brown-eyed girl who captivated the world – warm, vivacious, lively, exuberant – as she looks back down the decades of her unexpected life. In this third act, her passions are her grandchildren, Beau, Lucy and Theodore, and the Evonne Goolagong Foundation which gives opportunities to Indigenous children to help them be the “best that they can be by staying in school”. In its 17 years, the Foundation has put 74 children through the best schools in the country and produced doctors, teachers, lawyers. When Evonne was at school, she once wrote an essay saying that white farmers tended their sheep, smoked their tobacco and shot Aboriginal people who came onto their land. That had been her experience of the world.
Yet Evonne went on to become Australian of the Year, to pick up an MBE, an Officer of the Order of Australia and more recently, Companion of the Order of Australia. She won 14 Grand Slam tournament titles: seven in singles (four at the Australian Open, two at Wimbledon and one at the French Open), six in women’s doubles, and one in mixed doubles. She won the Fed Cup title in 1971, ’73 and ’74. And she was singing while she did it.
Chris Evert has said that, before a final match, she’d be quiet, serious, focused on the task ahead, and in would come Evonne singing away. “Well, I was the first one to take music into the dressing room. It was a transistor first and then a tape recorder.” She was mainly in a soul music groove when she was slaying people on the tennis courts of the world: “Otis Redding, Tina Turner – I just love music.”
When she won Wimbledon for the second time in 1980, she was the first mother to do so since Dorothea Chambers in 1914. Her daughter, Kelly, was three. Plagued by injuries and then “really sick” with “iron-poor blood”, she and her husband, Roger Cawley, were only there because they had already paid a large deposit on a rented house. “She didn’t think she could play,” says Roger. But then she started feeling better. It was the wettest Wimbledon on record but it seemed the sun always shone on Evonne, and she earned the name Sunshine Supergirl as a result.
A former junior tennis player, Roger had been Evonne’s training partner since they married in 1975 because “I could hit the ball very forcefully, even though she’s 20 times the player.”
Evonne and Roger had met when she arrived in London in 1970. She was a touring player, travelling the circuit, so “I wrote her millions of letters. It took me five years to persuade her to marry me,” he says.
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