With Billie Jean King and Margaret Court both in semi-retirement, Evonne Goolagong and Chris Evert are easily the two best women tennis players in the world. During the last few years they had met 26 times, with Evert holding a six-match edge. But last week Goolagong went into the Virginia Slims Championship in Los Angeles with 15 straight match wins, one of them over Evert earlier this month in Philadelphia. Now, as they faced each other across the net, the question to be settled was, who is really No. 1?
Never mind that among the flags hanging from the rafters of the Los Angeles Sports Arena there was one from Austria but none from Australia. Evonne Goolagong, of the Barellan, Australia Goolagongs, who was the tournament's No. 1 seed, merely kidded officials about the goof. Never mind that on the Sporteze carpet used for the matches balls were slowed up as if they were bouncing off a surface of green Cream Of Wheat. And never mind that the overhead lights at one end of the court made the server want to confess all her crimes or apply suntan lotion.
All irrelevant. What actually mattered, and what might affect the outcome of the $150,000 tournament, was that Goolagong was happy. She used to travel the circuit with the gruff tennis teacher who discovered her, Vic Edwards, but now she roams the world with her husband of 11 months, Roger Cawley, and the change in her has been startling.
People on the Slims tour say that these days Goolagong (that is still her court name) is actually paying attention when she's out there with a racket in her hands. No more of the infamous "walkabouts," in which this richly talented woman would suddenly lose her concentration and start wondering what flavor of ice cream that man in the front row was eating. And no more halfhearted practices. Cawley, once a junior player in England, is her practice partner now and she enjoys the workouts. It has paid off. This season Goolagong won five regular Slims tournaments (Chicago, Akron, Dallas, Boston and Philadelphia), clinched the Silver Ginny trophy for most points on the circuit and, according to one Slimsite, was "unbeatable."
And what of Chris Evert, who until recently had defeated Evonne in eight straight matches? Well, she had won four regular-season tournaments (Washington, D.C., Detroit, Sarasota and San Francisco), but she lost in the first round in Boston after taking a layoff, and then was beaten in straight sets by Goolagong in the Philadelphia final. So Evert went into Los Angeles as the second seed and a bit shaky in the confidence department.
All the seeds advanced the first night, Evert over Lesley Hunt, Virginia Wade over Betty Stove, Rosemary Casals over Terry Holladay and, in a battle of European teen-agers, Britain's Sue Barker, 19, over the U.S.S.R.'s Natasha Chmyreva, 17. Chmyreva is almost certainly a future champion if her national association will give her some freedom, but that is unlikely. Her older countrywoman, Olga Morozova, spends four weeks on tour, is called home for a month, tours for a month—bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic until she feels like an Aeroflot stewardess working double overtime.
Apparently there had indeed been too much bouncing for Morozova. She was the only seeded player to be eliminated, beaten by Francoise Durr, the Algeria-born Frenchwoman who did not take a lesson until she was 19 and consequently has a limp-wristed backhand and a pittypat serve that makes purists cover their eyes. Marita Redondo, third-seeded Martina Navratilova and Goolagong all won.
Goolagong's 6-1, 6-2 victory over Cynthia Doerner was her 16th in a row without losing a set. The last set, and the last match, she lost was in San Francisco six weeks before, to Evert.
Even at this point nobody in the arena had much doubt that Goolagong and Evert would be the finalists on Saturday. The Czech expatriate, Navratilova, had not played a tournament in a month because she hurt her left ankle while tossing a football around. She was also suffering from tendinitis in her left wrist (she is left-handed) and she was an easy 20 pounds overweight.
Round-robin play started in both the Gold group headed by Goolagong and the Orange group headed by Evert. Goolagong turned out to be not quite as untouchable as some people thought. Redondo, a 20-year-old from National City, Calif. with a ripping forehand, took a set from the favorite—the first in 17 matches—but was done in by 51 unforced errors and five double faults.
"I just sort of feel glad that I've actually had a long match for a change," said Goolagong.
The most exciting tennis of the night was seen by practically nobody. Sue Barker, 5'5" and about 110 pounds, beat countrywoman Virginia Wade for the first time in her life, but the match lasted until 1:53 a.m. Thursday and went to five match points. Barker is a blonde pixie, the freshest thing out of Devonshire since cream, yet she hits her forehand with the power of a stevedore.
Wade managed to lose her second match of the day, to Casals, and with it any chance of making the final, but the best match again involved Barker, who forced Evert into three sets before Chris won 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.
"I felt kind of numb out there and that was a bad sign," said Evert, "so I had to start psyching myself up. I tried to get very mad. I have a tendency to sometimes dislike my opponents. That's part of the killer instinct. I want to beat them. With Sue it's tough to do that. She's not the type you want to hate out there."
Evert is somewhat of a loner on the tour. For a while she hung around with Navratilova, showing the teen-age Czech around America so to speak. But, Slims people say, that stopped when Navratilova beat her in straight sets in the Houston final. It was understandably difficult for Evert to build up a killer instinct when a pal was across the net. Her best friend is Kristien Kemmer Shaw, who isn't nearly the threat that Navratilova is. Evert spent her spare time in L.A. with Shaw and her husband. Or she stayed alone in her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, tournament headquarters. Her relationship with ex-fiance Jimmy Connors is still in limbo.
"One thing I have learned is that it is tough to have success without someone to share it with," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I would like to have someone to share everything with, but still retain my independence. In the future I think I will have a really nice security with someone, but right now I don't want that."
She said she was "not really interested in men now. I have better things to do than go out with men I meet at tournaments who I'm not really attracted to."
Sitting in a room overlooking the palms of Beverly Hills on the afternoon before the Barker match Chris discussed the troubling notion that maybe she is losing her concentration at the very same time that Goolagong is gaining hers.
"I've thought about that," she said. "She's won four tournaments in a row and she's really starting to concentrate a lot more now. Before she never concentrated. On the other hand I've been brought up to concentrate and part of my reputation is based on my intense concentration.
"I really think it's mentally very hard to keep up this playing every week, and I think one factor is I've just had tennis, tennis, tennis my whole life and now I'm starting to branch out in different areas and it is taking away a little bit of my concentration on the court. So I have to learn just to put everything into those two hours that I'm spending in a match.
"I've signed with the Phoenix Racquets of World Team Tennis. I went to visit Kristien last summer for two weeks after Wimbledon and I stayed in Phoenix and traveled with the team to some away matches and practiced with them, just so I could get a feeling of what I was about to get into. I loved it, I really loved it. The only bad thing will be the traveling, but I'll get to have my own place in Phoenix.
"I like Phoenix. It's warm and it's small. San Francisco had the rights to me and were coming down and talking to my dad and myself, but they just wanted too much, too much of my time. It's a big city and they had big ideas. I wanted more of a low-key city, and Phoenix seemed to fit.
"But I think probably the team itself is most important. You know you're going to be living with the people so you have to get along with them, and I got along beautifully with everyone on the team."
The Cawleys arrived in Los Angeles a week before the championship, hoping to bask in abundant sunshine. They rented an apartment at the Marina City Club in Marina del Rey, but they didn't do much lolling in the sun. They wandered about instead, visiting Disneyland, Marineland and Universal Studios. They hit a number of different restaurants but returned several times to Chianti, a fashionable Italian place on Melrose Avenue where Goolagong always ordered veal.
Playing the first match for the third straight night, Evonne beat Navratilova as expected and was out on the town with Roger while the matches continued into the evening.
"I get out more than I used to," she said. "When you travel by yourself you usually just stay in your hotel room because you can't really go anyplace alone. Most of the girls go back to their rooms and watch TV and it is pretty boring. But Roger and I go to the movies, try different restaurants and sightsee. It's so much easier.
"You always have to have somebody close to you. Otherwise you go berserk. It's much easier for me that we don't have a home. I don't look forward to getting back anywhere. I don't get homesick for anywhere. I just think it's very important being happy on the tour and I find I'm much more relaxed about it now than I ever have been. When I finish playing I seem to be able to forget the match very quickly. We just get away from it and enjoy ourselves."
Evert did not have it so easy in her last round-robin match, being extended to three sets by Wade. Both women complained about the court, which Wade called "stodgy."
"It's very hard to put a ball away on this court," said Evert. "I was hitting with my backhand as hard as I could and Virginia didn't have any problems with it. Usually that's how I win a point—hit a backhand hard and place it. But it's really been tough."
To satisfy CBS, the Goolagong-Evert final was taped at 11 a.m., about the time they had been getting out of bed the previous five mornings. There was more at stake in this match than pride and prize money. Two gifted tennis players faced each other across the net, that was evident. But the fans probably didn't realize that they were also watching two conglomerates scratch and shove for better position in the marketplace. The Wall Street Journal should have had a reporter at the press table right next to the fellow from Tennis U.S.A.
Goolagong is the touring pro for the Hilton Head Racquet Club and endorses Cole of California tennis dresses, Dunlop rackets, Romika tennis shoes (in the U.S. and Britain), Dunlop-made tennis shoes (in Australia), Samsonite luggage and King Koil mattresses. Evert is under contract to the chichi Ford modeling agency in New York and endorses Puritan tennis dresses, Wilson rackets, Converse tennis shoes and Borden's cheese. An Evert cosmetics endorsement is imminent.
Goolagong was the obvious favorite of the crowd. Evert might have been seeded second, and ranked second on the 1976 prize-money list, but to the fans Goolagong was the underdog. Evert has followed the same path as Billie Jean King, from amazing teen-ager to queen of the game, at least in the fans' minds, and they enjoy seeing her dethroned. After all, cute little Chrissie is a mature 21 now and has won $703,262 the last three years.
Evert started out tenaciously, like a bulldog refusing to let go of the postman's ankle. Six times in the first game she had break point on Goolagong, who tried desperately to shake her off but couldn't. On the seventh Evert finally broke, then held her serve and led 2-0. Evert fans—and there were quite a few—must have settled back in their seats at that point and figured that their heroine was going to win her fourth Virginia Slims championship in five tries. Instead, Goolagong won six of the next seven games to take the first set 6-3.
The second set began with the same pattern. Evert was broken in the first game but shrugged it off, calmly sipped tea during the change of sides and determinedly moved to a 4-1 lead, once unleashing a patented Evert Grade A backhand passing shot down the line. But Goolagong was playing beautifully, too, floating about the Sporteze as if it were a meadow and she was dancing in Les Sylphides, gracefully hitting forehands and backhands with accuracy and power. She won four straight games, took a 5-4 lead and was serving for the set, for the match and for all the chips, marbles and mattress sales.
But Evert is not a bad athlete either, blessed as she is with the kind of determination one normally associates with star marathon runners and middle linebackers. She had to break to avoid losing the match, and that is what she did, thanks in part to another laser-beam backhand down the line and a Goolagong forehand into the net that the players would call "loose," meaning sloppy or careless. Evert held, broke again and won the set 7-5 to even the match.
For the most part the third set was Goolagong's all the way. She served nicely and was never in too much danger of being broken. Some of the rallies were exciting thrust-and-parry, teeter-on-the-brink tennis that elicited huzzahs from the In-person crowd, which included the usual Hollywood hackers—Johnny Carson, Lloyd Bridges, Bill Cosby, Robert Shaw. Evert had to struggle a bit to hold her serve and finally was broken in the seventh game. In the ninth game, with Evert behind 3-5 and serving, she staved off two match points but finally succumbed on a Goolagong overhead smash.
Ripley's Believe It or Not should note that Evonne actually had concentrated for a full hour and 57 minutes in winning her 20th match in a row, the only lapses coming when she twice started to serve from the wrong side, which didn't embarrass her at all. She explained that she let others worry about the score while she thought about what she had just done or was just about to do.
"I thought this was one of the best matches we've had because both of us played well consistently right up to the last point," said Evert. "We've had matches where it's gone three sets, but the sets that I've won, Evonne just wasn't playing as well, and the sets that she won, I wasn't playing as well.
"We always seem to have close matches. I think Evonne definitely has gotten more consistent. That's where I was able to beat her before, by trying to outsteady her, but you can't outsteady her anymore because her ground strokes are so good. So I think I'm going to have to develop a better net game and a better serve."
Goolagong, winner of the Australian and the Slims and the likely favorite at Wimbledon this summer, was off to her greatest start ever, better even than 1971, the year she won Wimbledon.
And she couldn't leave center stage without another plug for wedded bliss: "I've never worked harder really," she said. "Everything's paid off. I put everything into my practices and I think my husband's given me a lot of confidence."
Richer by $40,000, the Cawleys went off to the marina to change for dinner.