50 Years, 50 Heroes: Evonne Goolagong Cawley, 1977

by: Steve Tignor | November 30, 2018

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Goolagong Cawley has forged a deep connection between the two halves of her life—her people and her sport. (AP)

For our sixth annual Heroes Issue, we’ve selected passages from the last 50 years of Tennis Magazine and TENNIS.com—starting in 1969 and ending in 2018—to highlight 50 worthy heroes. Each passage acknowledges the person as they were then; each subsequent story catches up with the person, or highlights their impact, as they are now. It is best summed up with a quote from the great Arthur Ashe, that was featured on the cover of the November/December issue of this magazine in 2015: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong all but owned every tournament they chose to
enter in 1976. This year, with Goolagong pregnant and touring nothing more competitive than maternity shops, there is not a single blue-chip challenge within shouting distance of her rival. - Peter Bodo / January 1977

The 2018 Australian Open began with a familiarly rancorous debate: should the tournament keep Margaret Court’s name on its third-largest arena? Court’s old rival, Billie Jean King, called for the stadium to be renamed after the Australian champion labeled transgender identity the “work of the devil.”

The contretemps overshadowed a less-controversial story involving another Aussie legend. During the event, Evonne Goolagong Cawley was made a “companion of the Order of Australia”—the nation’s highest honor—for her achievements as a player and her work with young Indigenous Australians. Six months later, the ITF honored Goolagong Cawley with its most-prestigious accolade, the Philippe Chatrier Award.

This was the year that Goolagong Cawley got her due, and deservedly so. The 66-year-old New South Wales native is worth celebrating as a player, pioneer, advocate and role model. Since retiring from tennis, she has also made a quietly commendable journey away from international celebrity, and back to her indigenous roots.

From 1967 to 1983, Goolagong Cawley won 86 titles, including seven majors, and rose to No. 1. “Sunshine Supergirl,” she was dubbed at 19. The brown-skinned teenager was something new: the first, and still only, Aborigine to reach the sport’s highest levels.

 Goolagong had style, skill and easygoing charm. What she didn’t have was a sense of her own history. The Goolagongs were the only Aboriginal family in Barrellan, her tiny hometown, where she was taught that white Australians were heroes, and her own people were “real savages.” While Arthur Ashe was bringing a black consciousness to tennis, Goolagong Cawley steered clear of race—“No questions about color,” her coach, Vic Edwards, would warn the media. In 1971, she even agreed to play the South Africa Open as an “honorary white,” so the apartheid regime could uphold its ban on integrated sporting events. After her retirement, Goolagong Cawley and her husband and two children settled far from Barrellan, in Florida.

But the death of her mother in 1991 brought a reckoning. Goolagong Cawley moved her family back to Australia, and reconnected with her ancestry.

“I want them to learn about their people,” she said of her children. “I don’t want them to be like what happened to me, and not know anything when the grandparents have gone.”

Since 2006, she has run the Evonne Goolagong National Development Camp, which promotes opportunities in tennis for Indigenous Australians. In presenting the Chatrier Award, the ITF’s Dave Haggerty described Goolagong Cawley as “a champion of diversity who has worked tirelessly in her home country to improve the lives of many through the sport we all love.”

Her name would look good on the Australian Open’s third-largest arena, wouldn’t it?

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