Evonne Goolagong Cawley, the personification of grace, will once again be showered in love during the Australian Open, as the nation celebrates five decades since her first AO singles title triumph.
“I feel so grateful to be honoured by Tennis Australia,” the now 72-year-old proud Wiradjuri woman tells New Idea. “My first reaction was that I felt older for a moment! Fifty years is a long time…”
Evonne still has “so many great memories” playing at the Australian Open, and says she “could always rely” on having the support of the home crowd.
“It will be wonderful to relive these memories with family, friends and fans,” she shares.
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It was New Year’s Day in 1974 and Evonne, then 22, was facing off against American Chris Evert. It was her fourth consecutive time competing in the AO final, having previously lost twice to Margaret Court in 1971 and 1973, and Virginia Wade in 1972.
After Evonne won the first set, 7-6, Chris bounced back, taking the second 4-6. Temperatures were scorching, and Evonne later recalled that while her formidable opponent “looked like she’d just come out of the make-up room” with “barely a hair out of place” she was in “a lather of sweat”. So, she used the 10-minute break the players were offered during the second and third sets to take a shower. It clearly reinvigorated her, as Evonne smashed the final set, 6-0, in just 18 minutes!
“I remember feeling extra determined to win,” Evonne tells New Idea. “Looking at the result today, to beat Chris Evert six-love in the third, I guess I must have been in the zone. I know I was happy to finally win my first home Grand Slam.”
Indeed, as Evonne raised the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup triumphantly in the air, the thrill of emerging victorious on home soil was written all over her face. But while she’d go on to win the next three Australian Opens as well, the smiles hid years of darkness.
“When I was a little girl, I remember hiding under the bed so I wouldn’t be taken from my mum,” Evonne wrote in a piece for The Australian last year. “You wouldn’t know how terrifying that was for a kid, even now.”
Now a passionate crusader for First Nations rights, Evonne holds fast to the fear she felt as the Stolen Generation unfolded around her.
Evonne, who was born in Griffith, NSW, on July 31, 1951 and raised in the small country town of Barellan, continued: “I grew up in an Australia where being Aboriginal was frankly unfair and cruel. Many of my childhood memories have stayed with me through my life.”
Evonne’s nightmares of the Stolen Generation have spurred her on to help her First Nations brothers and sisters. From Cathy Freeman to the recent tennis world number one Ash Barty, she has been a much-loved mentor.
The mother of two is particularly proud of her Goolagong National Development Camp, which she funds with the love of her life, husband Roger Cawley. The pair married amid much fanfare in 1975 and their camp actively promotes the importance of health, education and employment.
“I am committed to running my education program for Indigenous kids,” Evonne wrote. “I want to see the gap close. My program is all about keeping kids in school and helping them to lead healthy lives.
“I know only too well what it means to be on the wrong side of the gap.”
For our full chat with Evonne, pick up a copy of New Idea, on sale now.