People's Champion

[EVONNE GOOLAGONG-CAWLEY] The winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles is back home in Australia, helping young Aborigines get a leg up both in tennis and in life
July 10, 2005

The game didn't even have a name, but Evonne Goolagong and her seven siblings played it faithfully. It was the 1950s in the remote Australian town of Barellan, and whenever an unfamiliar car cruised down the main drag, the Goolagong brood would run inside the family's modest single-story home and dive headlong under the beds. Growing up without electricity deep in the folds of New South Wales, they had to find creative ways to fashion their fun. "It was just another thing we did," she says, "the same way we climbed silos and swam in the irrigation canals."

It wasn't until many years later that Goolagong learned that the game was no game at all. Until 1971 the Australian government carried out a policy of forcibly removing so-called half-caste Aboriginal children from their families and relocating them to camps where they could be educated and otherwise prepared for integration into white society. (This was depicted in the critically acclaimed 2002 movie Rabbit-Proof Fence.) As relatively light-skinned members of the Wiradjuri tribe, the Goolagong kids were vulnerable. "Every time there was a shiny car, my mum must have worried it was the welfare people coming for her kids," Evonne says. "We had no idea."

Evonne's Aboriginal ancestry had a muted presence in her upbringing. Her father, Kenny, a sheepshearer, and mother, Melinda, a homemaker, rarely mentioned the family's history to their kids. "I think they wanted to protect us," Evonne says. In Barellan (less than 1,000 residents then, less than 500 today), the Goolagongs were just another large, hardworking family trying not to rely on missions for food and shelter.

Evonne recalls being asked to compose an essay in school describing the life of early British settlers in Australia. "I wrote that they worked in the fields, they sat on the porch smoking their pipes, and then when the Aborigines came, they shot them," she recalls, shaking her head in disbelief, radiating the same guilelessness and charm she showed as one of the world's top tennis players from the late 1960s to the early '80s. "I didn't make the connection that I was one of them. That's how indoctrinated I was."

Now her heritage is a driving force in her life. In 1991 she relocated from Naples, Fla., to the Australian state of Queensland, and since then the 53-year-old former champion, married for 30 years to onetime British journeyman player Roger Cawley, has become her country's most prominent advocate for Aboriginal causes. She runs the Tennis Australia Evonne Goolagong-Cawley Getting Started Program, which targets athletically inclined Aboriginal boys and girls and attempts to steer them toward tennis. She also recently launched the Goolagong State and National Development Camps, aimed at helping the tennis careers of a few select indigenous juniors. "The goal is not to create a champion--though that would be nice," Goolagong-Cawley says. "Really it's about giving them confidence and a sense of advancement."

Then there are the speeches she delivers in Aboriginal communities, the outreach programs, the fund-raisers, the awards dinners. "I just have such a passion for this," she says. "It's not political. It's about educating, about sharing my experiences with my people. And the best part is, I'm learning so much from them too."

In spite of tennis's starchy country-club image, the sport is awash in champions who have taken unlikely paths to the pinnacle. Venus and Serena Williams, of course, went from the public courts of Compton, in south Los Angeles, to the lawns of Wimbledon, and Andre Agassi is the son of an immigrant Las Vegas casino greeter. Goolagong-Cawley's backstory might be the most remarkable of all. She discovered tennis by happy accident as a child, her interest piqued when she read a fictitious story in a girls' magazine about, as she recalls, "a princess who goes to this magical place called Wimbledon."

Using a slat of wood from an apple crate as a makeshift racket, she hit rubber balls against walls, chimneys and every other flat vertical surface in Barellan. She was discovered by Vic Edwards, a top Australian coach who'd been scouring the bush for talented junior players, and at 13 she moved to Sydney to train with him. By 19 she was the champion at that magical place called Wimbledon, beating Margaret Court in the 1971 ladies' final for the second of what would be seven Grand Slam singles titles.

Attractive, outgoing and lacking in pretension, Goolagong was a hit with fans (Londoners dubbed her Sunshine Supergirl) and sponsors. She made friends easily on the women's circuit, in large part because she loved to dance and socialize and didn't involve herself in tour politics.

On the court, meanwhile, she was lithe and graceful and played a rococo game predicated less on force than on clever angles and a honeyed touch. "She was such a pretty player," says Martina Navratilova. "She didn't serve-and-volley; she would sort of saunter-and-volley." She won one French, two Wimbledon and four Australian singles crowns, not to mention six Grand Slam doubles titles. She would have won more if not for her inexplicable mental lapses. "They used to say, 'Evonne's gone walkabout,'" she says without a trace of embarrassment.

She married Cawley in 1975 and had a daughter, Kelly, two years later. The crowning moment of her career came at Wimbledon in 1980. With Roger and Kelly looking on, Evonne beat Chris Evert in the final to become the first mother to win Wimbledon since 1914. The next year she had a son, Morgan, and if giving birth and raising two kids gave her life balance, it also exacted a price in her training. Owing to lower-back and other injuries, she retired at 31 and repaired to live the good life, first on Hilton Head, S.C., then in Naples. She says, "I even opened a nightclub called Evonne's."

It didn't take long for the bourgeois trappings to lose their appeal. Melinda Goolagong died of a heart attack in 1991--Kenny had been fatally struck by a car while walking along a country road in '74--and when Evonne returned for the funeral, she says, "I looked around at this family I hadn't seen in years and knew this was where I belonged. I was so hungry to learn my history, to really know who I was."

The family moved to Noosa Heads, Queensland, and Evonne took to learning about her heritage with the same singularity of purpose that had enabled her to spend hours hitting balls against walls. "My goal is to share information and to educate," she says. "But am I an activist? No, no, no. I don't believe in pushing things on people."

Her soft-pedaling approach goes over well. Even when she's fishing in the most desolate swatch of the Great Barrier Reef, mates and sheilas recognize her by her familiar ringlets. Her 1993 autobiography, Home! The Evonne Goolagong Story, was a national phenomenon. "Someone just asked me if there's going to be a sequel," she says. "There might be when I finally answer the question, Who am I? I'm getting closer, but I'm not there yet."

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COLOR PHOTODAVID CALLOW THE DOCTOR IS IN Goolagong-Cawley ran a tennis clinic at this year's Australian Open. COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Tony Duffy FAN FAVORITE Goolagong-Cawley had the game to win Wimbledon and the personality to win over British crowds. COLOR PHOTOJANET L. MATHEWS/THE COLUMBIAN/AP COLOR PHOTOLUCAS FILM/20TH CENTURY/THE KOBAL COLLECTION (YODA) COLOR PHOTO

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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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