Stories You Should Know: Evonne Goolagong

Evonne Goolagong and Wimbledon 1971

All the usual suspects were on hand in the Ladies draw at Wimbledon in July, 1971. #1 Seed Margaret Court was coming off her Calendar Slam in 1970. She opened the 1971 season by defending her title in Australia, her sixth straight Major Title. Her streak ended in Paris, when she lost in the third round to unseeded Gail Chanfreau. Despite the loss, she was clearly the one to beat on the grass at Wimbledon. 

Billie Jean King, the #2 player in the world, was coming off knee surgery in 1970, and had passed on Australia and Paris. King and Court had played one of the greatest Wimbledon Finals of all time the year before. Margaret prevailed 14-12, 11-9 for the third leg in her historic year. Despite the slow start, 1971 would be one of Billie Jean’s finest years. She won 17 of the 31 tournaments she entered. Later in the year she would win the final Major of the year at Forest Hills. 

The always dangerous Rosie Casal was seeded 4th, England’s own Virginia Wade was 5th, followed by Nancy Richey Gunter. The cream of Women’s Tennis was poised to compete for tennis’ most important Title.

The 3rd seed was a 19 year old aboriginal girl from the Australia Outback. The third of eight children to Kenny Goolagong and Melinda, a member of the Wiradjuri People in New South Wales. Evonne Goolagong took up tennis early in her home town of Barellan, but growing up in the outback, did not get her much outside exposure. Vic Edwards ran a Tennis Camp in Sydney. Two of his assistants spotted her when they were passing through Barellan. Edwards convince Evonne’s parents to allow him to bring Goolagong to Sydney and enroll her in his Tennis School. This was 1965, Evonne was 14. At 16 she competed in her first Australian Championship, reaching the third round. Young and undisciplined, she showed moments of brilliance, but also had streaks of carelessness described as “walkabouts”. 1971 saw her jump into the international limelight.

Evonne took the great Margaret Court to the limit in the Finals of the Australian Open, losing a 3-set thriller to the World’s reigning #1, 2-6, 7-6, 7-5. She followed that with an overwhelming run through the French, not dropping a set, winning the Final, 6-3, 6-0. All that was left for the teenager was a victory over the reigning queens of women’s tennis, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court.

Both were waiting for her in the Semis at the All England Club. Except for one of here infamous “walkabouts” in the first set against fellow Aussie Leslie Hunt, which Goolagong lost, 6-1 (she came back to win the next two sets, 6-2, 6-1), Yvonne had rolled through her quarter of the draw, not losing a set. She had dismantled 6th seeded Nancy Richey Gunter in the Quarters, 6-3, 6-2, and now faced Billie Jean in the first Semi. The match wasn’t a route, but Evonne took control early and dispatch King in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4. Now the toughest test of all against Margaret Court in the Finals.

Court’s game was based on power, big serve, then come to the net. Attacking short balls, driving groundstrokes deep and putting away easy volleys. She started aggressive, pouncing on Evonne’s weak second serve, charging the net and waiting for the easy put away. It didn’t work. Margaret would hit deep approach shops and charge the net, but the young teenager would fling a crosscourt or drive a groundstroke down the line for clean winners. Goolagong broke Court’s serve early in the first set and held on for a 6-4 win. The second set was a disaster for the defending champion. Evonne’s ability to counter Court’s power frustrated her, and Goolagong won easily 6-1. At 19, Evonne was on top of the tennis world. Margaret Court would announce that she was pregnant soon after the match, and would not play another Major until the 1972 U.S. Open. The door was wide open for the new phenom.

Unfortunately for Evonne her tennis career seemed to peak with her victory at Wimbledon. She had won back to back Major Titles and had lost in three sets to the legend Court in the other. She, along with the pregnant Margaret Court, chose not to compete in the U.S. Open in September,  which was won by King over Rosie Casals. Goolagong did compete in all four Majors in 1972, making three Finals but lost them all. She lost in two more Major Finals in 1973.

Chris Evert came on the scene in 1973, Martina Navrtilova became a world class player in 1975. Those two would be the face of Women’s Tennis for the next ten years. Goolagong was competitive, but by the end of her career their records were much more impressive.

3/7/71 – Chris Evert. (Pat Canova / The Palm Beach Post)

In 1974 Evonne won the Australian Open for the first time, and also reached the Final in the U.S. Open before losing to Billie Jean King. Those were two of only 3 Majors she was a part of. She wouldn’t play the French for nearly a decade over a dispute involving World Team Tennis. She married British Tennis Player Roger Cawley in June of 1975, just prior to Wimbledon, a tournament she would reach another Final which she again lost in, this time to King.

She won the Australian for the third straight time and reached two more Major Finals in 1976, then put her career on hold when she became pregnant late in the year. She never went back to full time play after the birth of her daughter, Kelly. She only competed in ten more Majors after that, but she won two, the 1977 Australian Open and a stunning triumph at Wimbledon in 1980, defeating 2nd seeded Tracy Austin in the Semis and then Chris Evert in the Final. She had another daughter in 1981, tried a comeback, but it wasn’t to be and called it quits in 1983.

Putting Evonne Goolagong’s tennis career in perspective is rather difficult. She finished with seven Major Titles, 4 Australians, 2 Wimbledons, and the one French. She also participated in 11 other Major Finals. 3 Australians, 1 French, 2 Wimbledons, and 4 straight U.S. Opens between 1973 and 1976. Her victims in the Finals of her seven victories were the who’s who of 1970s Women Tennis. Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert in Australia, Margaret Court and Evert again at Wimbledon. Among her 15 losses at Majors, 4 were to Billie Jean King, 3 apiece to Margaret Court and Chris Evert, and 1 to Virginia Wade. No woman made more Major Finals between 1971 and 1976 than Evonne Goolagong. She curtailed her career to raise a family, moving back to Australia after 8 years in Florida. 

Her current legacy is that as the 2nd greatest Tennis Player to come out of Australian, and like Margaret Court, a fantastic example to women everywhere.

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