Goolagong won seven Grand Slam tournaments and was the first indigenous Australian to achieve prominence in international sport. Her story is even more remarkable, as at the time of her wins, she was also one of the very few women to have won a major tournament as a mother.
In her long and glorious tennis career she won well over a million dollars, ninety professional tournaments and was a finalist in eighteen Grand Slam events. A five-time Wimbledon finalist, Evonne faced and defeated some of the greatest tennis players in history such as Margaret Court, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert. She won Wimbledon twice, the Australian Open four times and the French Open once. Although she never won the US Open, she was runner up four years in succession.
As a child Goolagong use to hide under her bed when a stranger came to the door of her childhood home, living in Griffith, NSW. It became a knee-jerk reaction for any young Aboriginal child who was repeatedly taunted of the dangers of unknown visitors in the era of the stolen generations.
This habit continued when she moved with her family to Barellan, a small town, where her family were the only Aboriginal family on the block. This fear had been passed down from generation to generation. In her extended family, she had cousins who had been taken from their parents.
Goolagong was a member of the Wiradjuri people, and was one of those who witnessed Prime Minister Rudd’s apology to all Indigenous Australians. Goolagong didn’t just want to be part of the historical occasion, she wanted to be there to lend her support to all the women who had their children forcibly taken from them.
In her own words: “Now the healing can start. To finally say sorry, shows a mark of respect. Finally the Australian Government has taken the first step towards reconciliation in this county. When you say sorry, it creates a better working relationship. I think we have a better chance of working together now”.
Goolagong is the third out of eight children born to parents Kenny Goolagong (a sheep shearer and farm hand) and Melinda. The family lived in a tin shack on the outskirts of Barellan and were the only Aboriginal family in the vicinity. Fishing for yabbies, small crayfish, was fun for the children? But there was no money to throw around.
As a young child she spent whole days playing with tennis balls, and even at the tender age of five earned pocket money by retrieving balls at the local War Memorial club, which housed four tennis courts. Renowned for her grace, extremely delicate touch and fluid speed around the court, Goolagong Cawley started playing by hitting a ball against a wall with a board from an apple crate.
By the age of six, Goolagong had been given her very own racquet and spent every spare minute practicing, and learning basic tennis skills from members of Barellan’s War Memorial Tennis Club.
As fate would have it, London-born Vic Edwards, who ran a huge coaching operation from Sydney, was persuaded to include Barellan in his network of week-long tennis schools held in bush towns while children were on holiday. Edwards was one of Australia’s most renown coaches of that time. It was in fact the two coaches that were assigned to the property that recommended Edwards fly out and take a look at nine year old Goolagong and her technique. Edwards was so impressed by the youngster, he spoke to her parents about re-locating her to Sydney to be professionally trained. Two years later, she moved in with Edwards and his family. Edwards became her legal guardian, assuming responsibility for her education on and off court, but she remained in constant contact with her family back in Barellan. The locals also played there part in her career, often dipping into their own pockets to subsidize her career.
After winning multitudes of Australian amateur championships, Goolagong became “Australian Junior Champion” without losing a set. In 1970 she embarked on her first international tour, winning seven of the 21 tournaments she entered. In 1971, Goolagong turned professional and lost no time in establishing herself on the world tennis circuit. That year she won the French Open and stunned the favoured Australian, Margaret Court with a Wimbledon finals victory. Edwards travelled with Goolagong as her coach, manager, mentor and surrogate father right up until 1976, by which time Goolagong had matured, married and was assuming an independent lifestyle.
Throughout the 70’s and well into the early 80’s Goolagong held her own among some of the top players in professional tennis. She reached the Wimbledon finals three more times in the 70’s. No one could touch her in the Australian Open as she won every year from 1974 to 1977. She also won the Australian Doubles crown in 1971, 1974, 1975 and 1976. Goolagong was the main stay of Australia’s Federation Cup team that won the Cup in 1971, 1973 and 1974, and reached the final in 1975 and 1976.
In 1972, Goolagong was a recipient of an MBE, after being added to the “Queens honours list” for her contribution to Tennis. That same year on Australia Day, Goolagong was named “Australian of the Year”. In 1982, Her Majesty the Queen, once again recognised her contribution to Tennis and the Aboriginal community by awarding her an “Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).
Goolagong and former junior British tennis player Roger Cawley married in London, in 1975. Goolagong yearned to win another title and had her sights set on Wimbledon. By 1980, most had written Goolagong off as a “has been”, but then she pulled a rabbit out of her hat by winning Wimbledon that year in a memorable final against Chris Evert. The crowning glory was to be even more memorable, as she was the first mother to win a singles final since 1914. Even though the fire inside of her wanted to continue playing, her injuries were making it more and more difficult, so in 1983, Goolagong retired from the world tennis circuit.
In 1988, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Even off the court, Goolagongs life hasn’t slowed down. She is a successful businesswoman, a tireless charity worker and devoted mother and wife. Once a resident of Florida (8 yrs), Goolagong and her family including her two United States born children Kelly and Morgan, relocated to Noosa Heads in Queensland, where Goolagong has become increasingly involved in Aboriginal Affairs here in Australia.
In 1997 Evonne was appointed by the Minister for Sport and Local Government, the Honourable Warwick Smith MP, as a sporting ambassador for the Australian Sports Commission with the role of encouraging Aboriginal children to become more actively involved in sporting activities. Her role had three major responsibilities:-
- To work with national sporting organisation to provide the sport input into the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation’s evaluation of the status of reconciliation in Australia.
- To use her role model appeal by visiting communities, addressing school groups and meeting with ATSIC Regional Councils.
- To head up the “Evonne Goolagong Sports Trust” to obtain corporate and community donations for Aboriginal sport. The trust was established through the Australian Sports Foundation.
Goolagong even found time to write an autobiography entitled “Home” published in 1993, that traces her family’s history and documents her life as a tennis professional.
In 2016, Goolagong was also awarded an honorary doctorate from the Charles Sturt University in South Australia in recognition for her distinguished service to the aboriginal community and international tennis circuit.
Goolagong also has had a trophy named in her honour awarded to the female champion of the Brisbane International. It’s called the “Evonne Goolagong Cawley Trophy”.
And if that wasn’t enough recognition, in February 2016 she along with ten other Australian tennis players were honoured by Australia Post as the recipients of the 2016 Australia Post Legends Award and appeared on a postage stamp set, named “Australian Legends of Singles Tennis”.
Should you want to get up close and personal with Goolagong’s achievements, The National Museum of Australia is home to a collection of Goolagong memorabilia, including her 1971 and 1980 Wimbledon singles trophies. Also the trophy from her 1974 doubles win, and two racquets used in these tournaments.