Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
Years played: 1967–1983
Major titles: 7*
“Sunshine Supergirl,” the hip, young tennis fans of London dubbed Goolagong during her insouciant, enchanted run to her first Wimbledon title in 1971. While she may have been the latest in a long line of Australian champions, this lissome, curly-haired, brown-skinned 19-year-old was also something entirely new: Goolagong was the first (and still only) Aborigine to reach the highest levels of the sport. When she upset her countrywoman and idol, Margaret Court, in the final on Centre Court, it felt like the tennis world had been turned upside down.
It wasn’t just Goolagong’s background that was new; no one played the game like her, either. As her nickname implied, Goolagong lit up the court with her carefree charisma. Her style was so free-flowing that you were surprised to ever see her sweat. But her easygoing attitude was backed up by fast feet and faster hands. Just 5’6”, she was nevertheless the most natural of net-rushers, and her backhand was as smooth and versatile as any one-hander in tennis history.
Goolagong grew up in a small town west of Sydney, one of eight children of a sheep-shearer. She was spotted gazing at a nearby tennis court and was encouraged to play. Australian teaching pro Vic Edwards recognized her talent and brought her to Sydney to train. Few international debuts have been as sensational. In 1971, she became the only player to win the French Open in her first try, and she followed that up a month later with another win at Wimbledon.
While Goolagong would win just five more majors over the next 12 years, it’s hard to say that she didn’t live up to her early potential. She won 68 singles titles, rose to No. 1 in the world in 1976, and reached the finals of 17 of the 21 Grand Slam events she entered from 1971 to 1977. But she was destined to be remembered not for her dominance as a champion, but her long-running rivalries with two other top players of the ‘70s, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King. They usually got the better of Goolagong, but the Aussie’s laid-back style always made for a fascinating contrast with the Americans’ intensity.
Intensity typically won out, of course, but Goolagong would get the better of Evert in their last major final, at Wimbledon in 1980. Nine years after her winning debut as a teenager there, Goolagong pulled off another first: She became the only mother to win at the All England Club in the Open era. She came in as Supergirl and went out as Superwoman.
Defining Moment: At Wimbledon in 1970, Margaret Court had beaten Billie Jean King in a classic final. When they each reached the semifinals in 1971, tennis fans braced for a rematch between these longtime rivals. Instead, Goolagong, an easygoing teenager from the Aussie outback playing in just her second Wimbledon, beat them both in straight sets. Tennis had a new superstar for the post-'60s generation.
Watch: Stories of the Open Era - Evonne Goolagong