Nine years ago Australian tennis Coach Vic Edwards, who has the look of a Sandhurst-educated British colonel, took a young, part-aborigine girl into his Sydney home. He and his wife treated her like one of their own children. Her surname, Goolagong, means "tall trees near still water" in the aboriginal language, and she was as graceful and placid as her name. She was a player of unusual promise, and it was unlikely that she would reach her potential living with her parents 400 miles to the west in the wheat-farming country. It wasn't long before Edwards was predicting that Evonne Goolagong would reach tennis stardom in 1974.
"I stand by that," he said last year. "I can see it all coming together."
Goolagong, who surprised the world by winning Wimbledon in 1971, this year failed for the third time to repeat that triumph. She reached the final at Forest Hills, but lost a tough match to the queen of the game, Billie Jean King. But lest anyone think her guardian was a poor prognosticator, Goolagong, now 23, set the record straight last weekend at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Playing in the third annual Virginia Slims Championships, she upset King in the semifinals 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, upset Chris Evert in the final 6-3, 6-4 and walked off with a check for $32,000, equal to the juiciest cash prize in the history of women's sports.
"She was like a panther compared to me," said King. "She had more mobility and she played beautifully. I started watching her, and then I'd remember all of a sudden that I had to hit the ball."
"There was nothing I could do," marveled Evert. "She just hit winner after winner. Against Evonne good wasn't good enough. You had to hit the lines."
Goolagong has become well-known for her "walkabouts," lapses when she loses her concentration, starts thinking about the price of walnuts in Tasmania and neglects the execution of a faltering opponent. There was nothing like that against King and Evert last week. She glided around the court in her diaphanous dresses, seized every opportunity to race to the net and, once there, stirred the crowd with her quick, acrobatic moves. She would not only get to an opponent's streaking shot, she would somehow send it back at an impossible-to-return angle.
The field had been ballyhooed as the "top 16 women players in the world," which was not quite true. To become one of the select 16, a player had to finish high in the point standings and show up for at least seven Slims singles events, a reasonable requirement to keep the local promoters happy. Some talented people, however, failed to get their seven for one reason or another, like aching teeth and a high fever (Nancy Richey Gunter) or a sick father (Helga Masthoff of West Germany) or the need to finish high school (Jeanne Evert). Olga Morozova, who upset King to reach the 1974 Wimbledon final, was ordered home by the commissars of Soviet tennis to play in the Soviet national tournament. Kerry Melville got in her seven and had points to burn, but she decided to pass up a shot at the pot of gold and flew home to Australia for a rest. And Margaret Court understandably has not been in action much this year, having given birth to a daughter in August. Still, it was silly to quibble. What was really important was that the big three—King, Evert and Goolagong—were playing the same tournament for only the third time this year, the first two being Wimbledon and Forest Hills.
As if the big names and the money were not sufficient, the promoters went after the Buck Rogers fans by announcing plans to use the Electronic Line Judge "on a full-court basis for the first time during a major tennis tournament." The men of World Championship Tennis had used the contraption in May, but only on the service line. This time, plastic sensors under the Sporteze playing surface would do all the work linesmen usually do, and two mad scientists sitting by the umpire's chair would monitor the calls via a mysterious black box.
"They can do anything with that machine," said Rosemary Casals. "It's just great."
Well, almost anything. Plain old error-prone, inaccurate, inefficient human beings, with all their loose circuitry and worn gaskets, had to be used after all. It turned out that ELJ was more temperamental than previously thought and objected to sharing the Sports Arena with hockey-rink water pipes and electric lines rigged up for the organ. Somewhat milled, it was used only in an advisory capacity and was promised another try-out later. Science trudges on.
Although this was technically the third Slims Championship, it was really the first using what will probably be the enduring format, one that restricts the field to the elite. The first two were held on slow Florida clay and were won by the mistress of that medium, Evert. She was seeded No. 1 in Los Angeles, and it was justified. After all, she was the champion of Italy, France and Great Britain, had posted a 36-3 record on the winter-spring Slims tour and had become the first woman in tennis history to earn more than $100,000 in the first half of a year.
With her fiance, Jimmy Connors, and her father/coach watching each night, Evert defeated Fran√ßoise Durr, Casals and Virginia Wade. Except for a tiebreaker set she lost to Rosie, the matches were not close. Her serve showed obvious improvement and she was deceptively fast getting to well-hit shots. As usual, her ground strokes stayed just in. Surfaces were of no concern to her, she said. She had not even practiced on clay for a couple of months.
Goolagong's path to the final was much more difficult. She was forced into tie-breaker sets by Valerie Ziegenfuss and Lesley Hunt, only to find second-seeded King waiting in the semis—Billie Jean King, 30, president of the Women's Tennis Association, player/coach of the Philadelphia Freedoms, magazine publisher, author and Forest Hills champion.
It was King who was chiefly responsible for the fat purse the women were pursuing and for the fatter purses that are sure to follow. The Virginia Slims Championships will return to L.A. next year (in April) with even more prize money offered, and the details are being hammered out now on a contract with CBS calling for live TV coverage of six 1975 tournament finals on Saturday afternoons. King the executive was glad to talk of such matters, but King the player was anxious to take the court.
"I want this championship," she said. "It's so important to me, first, because it pays the highest prize money ever offered and, second, because I want to see if I can win the toughest one after a long exhausting season."
She couldn't. Just as at Forest Hills, Goolagong won the first set and lost the second, but this time she changed the pattern and won the third, bringing roars from the crowd with some seemingly impossible saves.
"I thought I played the best I've played for a very long time," Goolagong said afterward, and then announced her strategy against Evert in the final: "To get in to the net as much as possible, because there's no way I'm going to beat her sitting on the baseline. If I do that well, I know I can beat her."
Goolagong had reason to be confident. At the Australian Open she had taken Evert 6-0 in the third set. At Forest Hills she had beaten her in a dramatic rain-delayed match that ended Chris' consecutive-match winning streak at 56. Just three weeks ago, in Denver, she had trailed Evert 4-1 in the third set and had won five straight games and the match. But despite her recent success, Goolagong's career record against Chris was seven wins, seven losses.
Goolagong and King had gotten a standing ovation at the end of their match, but the Goolagong-Evert match Saturday night before 7,049 might well have been better, even though Evonne won in straight sets. After Goolagong took the first 6-3, Evert jumped off to a 2-0 lead in the second, fell behind and twice had to break Goolagong's serve to stay in the match. In one rally Evert three times chased down overhead smashes by Goolagong and got them back. But while Evert was capturing Goolagong's serve in clutch situations, she could not hold her own and finally went down, fighting.
It was Goolagong's night and Goolagong's big payoff, but it was not too sad an occasion for Evert. She had raised her 1974 world earnings to almost $195,000, was nearing the end of the most successful year in her tennis career and she was, as some people tend to forget, still only 19 years old.