Evonne Goolagong recalls career on eve of Hall of Fame induction

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Evonne Goolagong's tennis career took her from a tiny farming town in Australia to curtsying before royalty at Wimbledon. She won titles there, in Rome, Paris, and other international metropolises, and married an Englishman. Today she lives in Naples - the one on Florida's Gulf Coast not the Mediterranean. There is a bit of an irony here, because Florida is Chris Evert's turf, the state that produced America's tennis sweetheart. It is a former Evert rival, the part-Aboriginal heroine of New South Wales, however, who has settled in the Sunshine State, is raising a family there, and is enjoying a life in which one foot is in, and the other out of tennis. She even has a major contract with Sears, and what could be a better symbol of American success than that?

And what could be a greater tennis honor than the one she will receive tommorow in Newport, R.I., when she is inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame? She is this year's sole enshrinee, which makes it even more special.

For the occasion, the hall has drawn up a list of Goolagong's many playing accomplishments, a record that catches its modest authoress somewhat by surprise.

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``It's kind of exciting reading the results for the first time. It looks like more than I ever thought I did,'' she said during a recent swing through Boston. ``When you're playing , you're always thinking about the next point, the next match, the next tournament. You're always thinking ahead. Now I can look back and say, `Yes, I did well, didn't I?'''

Indeed she did. Although never ranked No. 1 in the world, she was a major force in the women's game throughout the 1970s and into the next decade, a period when Evert, Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, Tracy Austin, and Martina Navratilova were among her formidable rivals.

Among the highlights were four Australian titles, two at Wimbledon, and one in the French Open. She never entered the winner's circle at the US Open, but reached four consecutive finals beginning in 1973. The '74 final, she says, was perhaps her most exciting match ever.

``That was when the tournament was still at Forest Hills on grass and Billie Jean and I were both playing really well, running to the net a lot,'' she recalls of the three-set confrontation, decided by a 7-5 final set score.

Maybe her most striking achievement was winning Wimbledon nine years apart, first as a precocious 19-year-old, and then in 1980 as the mother of a young daughter. No mother had won the championship since Dorothea Lambert Chambers in 1914.

Goolagong married English businessman Roger Cawley in 1975 and in 1977 they had the first of two children, Kelly Inala. While Kelly's arrival caused a restructuring of personal priorities and life style, it also served as a prod when Evonne returned to the circuit.

``It was good for me, because it made it such a challenge to get back to where I was,'' she remembers. ``It actually made me work a whole lot harder.''

For this reason, she calls the '80 Wimbledon title, which followed Navratilova's first two championships, her most satisfying result. It also produced a level of nearly effortless command of her shots that provided an unforgettable experience. And for such a graceful player as Goolagong, style was important.

Interestingly, her opponent in that landmark victory was Evert, who valiantly but vainly attempted to avoid a straight-set defeat, 6-1, 7-6.

Evonne retired several years later, frustrated by injury-related disruptions to her career. She also wanted to be more of a stay-home mother to the couple's growing children (Kelly is now 11, son Morgan 7).

At 36, she manages to squeeze in a fair amount of tennis, but it is all pretty light, fun stuff - exhibitions, charity appearances, and maybe some rallying with her husband, a former professional player, and his clients in the hotel/resort development business.

Evert, of course, continues to be one of the world's premier players and Goolagong hopes that her friend plays as long as possible. ``I don't think she'd be happy if she suddenly stops,'' Evonne says. ``With Chris, I think tennis has been pretty much everything. With me I didn't want it to be everything. I enjoyed other things in life. I always thought the most important thing in life was just to be happy in whatever you do.''

This joyousness came through in her tennis play, which wasn't marked by the ferocious intensity of some of today's big-stakes competitors. At times, though, lapses in concentration, which she called ``walkabout,'' were blamed for her uneven results.

Today, Evonne says she used ``walkabout,'' a term that refers to the Aborigines' nomadic camp-to-camp movements, as a pat answer for explanation-starved reporters. ``They'd ask what happened at this stage of the match, and I'd say, `I don't know, I just went walkabout,' and that finished the interview,'' she says.

When Goolagong first arrived on the international scene, her background intrigued and fascinated many tennis followers. She was a tennis-playing Eliza Doolittle, a part-Aborigine from the farming town of Barellan, who was taken under the wing of powerful Australian tennis mentor, Vic Edwards (always ``Mr. Edwards'' to his star pupil). Edwards invited her to move to Sydney, where she took a secretarial course and lessons to improve her speech while honing her tennis game.

Many people mistakenly assumed she was from the outback, which she's never seen, but hopes to eventually. While her family now lives in Naples, which enjoys the heat she loves and a location nearer the tennis action than Australia, she still has a strong attachment to her homeland. She goes back about once a year, and would someday like to do a documentary on the Aborigines - as seen through the eyes of her English husband and American-born children.

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