It has been about a year since Evonne Goolagong forsook the women's tennis tour and her No. 2 world ranking and retired to her beachfront home on Hilton Head Island, S.C., to await the birth of her first child. Since then, with the notable exception provided by Virginia Wade at Wimbledon, Chris Evert has dominated the game in such a way as to produce ennui. Week by week it became not so much a question of whether Evert would win, but rather if she would smudge her sneakers.
To refresh flagging memories, Goolagong was the 1971 Wimbledon champion, won the Virginia Slims tour in 1974 and 1976, was the finalist at Forest Hills four straight times (1973-76), made the finals of every Slims tournament she played in last year and was considered about the only one good enough to make Evert perspire. After Evonne gave birth to a daughter, Kelly Inala, on May 12, there was speculation if she ever again would find herself at match point. Her daughter's middle name means "a peaceful place," and many thought that Goolagong had discovered tranquillity away from tennis and found it to her liking.
Moreover, when she entered the Canadian Open in Toronto in August and lost in the first round to a relatively obscure German, Katja Ebbinghaus, then withdrew from the U.S. Open and scurried back to Hilton Head, there was further speculation that her training was being mishandled by her husband, Roger Cawley. Pregnancy, it was said, had sapped her strength, made her susceptible to injury and slowed her up. At 26, it seemed, Evonne Goolagong was through with tennis.
In apparent confirmation, she said in mid-September, "If it came down to a decision of choosing tennis or my family, there is no question that I would give up the sport."
October 16, 1977
Of course the rigors of maternity—the weight gain, the hiatus from practice and competition and the loss of strength—can be deleterious to athletic skills. Margaret Court knows this well. Her first child, Daniel, was born in 1973 when Court was 30 years old and near the apex of her tennis career. A proponent of weight lifting and physical conditioning, Court recalls that her experience with childbirth turned out to be a positive one, forcing her to work even harder during her comeback in 1973. "I really had to push my body beyond its limits," she said last week. "You're very injury prone at such a time. After Daniel, I took four months and just worked on my conditioning. I wanted to come back because at the time everybody said, 'Well, she'll never be any good again.' That just made me push on. And once I started playing, I never seemed to tire. I just kept going and playing in tournaments every week. It was one of those years that you don't forget." In her season to remember, Court won 24 of 28 tournaments, including 12 in a row.
When Goolagong returned to the practice court, she suffered nettlesome injuries, as Court might have predicted, tearing a muscle in her right shoulder that made her wince when she served, and worrying over a numbness in her right leg. Those watching her daily practices were shaking their heads.
Goolagong was preparing for the World Invitational Tennis Classic scheduled for the last week of September at Sea Pines Plantation. It was her return to competition after her premature comeback in Canada, and it would occur at Hilton Head before many of her friends and neighbors. A few weeks before the WITC, Goolagong appeared almost diffident about her progress. "I want to give it a try now," she said. "I want to see how far I can go and then we'll make a decision on whether I'll keep playing. I don't want to look back two years from now and be sorry that I didn't try."
With an eye to the future, the Cawleys had made plans to build an elaborate tennis complex on Hilton Head and acquired an option to purchase approximately 70 acres for this purpose. Unfortunately, their business partner, Richard Duke, suffered a fatal heart attack. His death deepened Evonne's dismay with her game, but in the days leading up to the WITC her skills suddenly started to reappear. She played well in several exhibitions and began to feel like her old self, running down impossible shots, her hair wet and curly on her forehead from the exertion of practicing in the heat and humidity. By the opening day of the tournament, Roger felt confident enough to say with a smile, "She's playing well enough to win."
The Cawleys' relationship is extremely close, even for relatively newly-marrieds. Roger wears several gold chains around his neck, one reading "Roger-Evonne," the others "E." She casts glances at him constantly during her matches. They can be seen strolling hand in hand wherever they go, bicycling together around the island or jumping into their Jeep for a trip to the store. Roger is trainer and coach, as well as a buffer between Evonne and the public. A former tournament player in his native England, Roger, too, was under pressure at the WITC. Evonne's performance would either condemn or vindicate his methods.
In the WITC, the players compete in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, and in Goolagong's opening match, she and Kerry Reid were paired in doubles against Virginia Wade and Dianne Fromholtz. It quickly became apparent that Evonne's volleys were as crisp as ever, and she displayed a new weapon, a topspin forehand that she hit short cross-court. As the match wore on, her smile grew wider and her manner almost bubbly. "She's getting more and more confident," said Roger at courtside, with a smile of his own.
Goolagong was in surprisingly good condition. During her pregnancy, she had monitored her weight so well that a month before Kelly's birth, some acquaintances, assuming by her appearance that they must have missed something, were asking her "How's your baby?" Replied Evonne mischievously, "Still kicking." Some pregnant women get bizarre craving for certain foods; Evonne's was an insatiable desire for lemons, and she ate so many that her dentist warned her to stop eating them because the citric acid was affecting the enamel on her teeth. During pregnancy she gained only 14 pounds, and thanks to a running-exercise program instituted by Roger, she is now five pounds lighter—125 pounds—than her previous playing weight.
Goolagong and Reid had an easy time in the doubles, winning in three sets 5-7, 6-1, 6-4. Her opponent in the singles would be Reid, a gritty player familiar with Goolagong's game. Over the years they have had a series of tight matches and this would be no different. Goolagong won the first set 7-6, taking the tiebreaker 7-4, and her well-placed strokes had Reid so much on the go that it was she and not Evonne who first ran out of gas. With the spring in her opponent's legs gone, Evonne raced through the second set 6-3 and wrapped up the match. "Two weeks ago," said Roger, "Kerry would have beaten her 6-1, 6-1." "Judging by the way she played today," said Reid, "she'll be tough again by the beginning of the year."
For Evonne, the applause alleviated the sore muscles. "I'm getting keen about coming back," she said. "Losing at Toronto was good practice for me. That match just about killed me. I was exhausted. I think I went to sleep afterward. It made me realize how much I have to catch up. But it's a nice feeling to know you've worked so hard and you are gradually getting better. My life has changed so much now. I feel more of a whole person. I make a lot of decisions on my own and I'm happier for it. And Kelly is my joy. She weighs 20 pounds going on 40. I think that is where I get my strength from, carrying her around."
Later that afternoon, Goolagong and Bjorn Borg played a mixed-doubles match against Roscoe Tanner and Reid, losing 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. Two matches in one day were a bit much and it showed in her singles finals the following day when Evonne met Virginia Wade. She had not lost to Wade since 1975 but in the third set she tired badly and Wade won 6-4, 6-7, 6-3. Evonne was happier in defeat than she had been in some time. "To win one set off the No. 2 woman in the world is fantastic," she said.
"We didn't think Evonne could do something like this for three more months," added Roger.
For the future, Goolagong will keep practicing, then return to her native Australia for tournaments in November and December, culminating with the Australian Open. After that she will play the Virginia Slims circuit. Whether she ever again will be No. 1 is a matter to be thrashed out with her family as well as with Chris Evert, but her composed performance at Hilton Head indicated that she is not quite ready to retire to the kitchen.