‘Sunshine super girl’ Goolagong Cawley defied prejudice to become a star

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Evonne Goolagong Cawley's tennis play began with an apple crate board

But she reached world No.1 and achieved seven Grand Slam titles in the process

As an Aborigine, though, there were issues of racism she faced in her career

CNN  — 

When Evonne Goolagong Cawley first picked up an apple crate board to hit a ball against any flat surface she could find, Wimbledon was always the dream.

The tennis-obsessed youngster would play for hours on end against a wall or a water tank, at the time thinking the tournament was merely the stuff of fairy tales.

“I read this princess magazine story,” recalls the 63-year-old seven-time Grand Slam singles winner in an interview with CNN Open Court at the Australian Open.

“One story was about this girl who trained and was taken to this place called Wimbledon where she won on this magical court.

“I didn’t know it was for real but she said ‘yes, this place exists in England’.”

From that moment henceforth, the wall or water tank was the net at the All England Club, the concrete under her feet the hallowed grass turf graced by so many past champions.

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“Every time I went to sleep at night, I would dream about playing at that magical center court and every time I hit the wall I would pretend I was there.”

Goolagong Cawley’s fairy tale came true.

Nicknamed the ‘Sunshine super girl’ early in her career, Goolagong Cawley achieved exactly that feat in 1971, winning the first of Grand Slam titles.

She is 12th on the list of all-time singles grand slam winners level with Venus Williams and ended her career with 19 single titles in all.

As well as two Wimbledon titles, Goolagong Cawley also won the Australian Open four times, the French Open, three Fed Cup titles and reached world No.1 in 1976.

If the fairy tale came true, there were also many times when the clock struck midnight, with her story marked by episodes where – as with so many Aborigines – she was often treated as a second-class citizen.

There was a regular fear of being taken away from her parents.

Many Australians thought the best practice was for Aboriginal children to be removed from their families to be given a life away from poverty and an education in white Australian society.

“Whenever a car would come down the road, my mum would tell us to hide ‘or else the welfare man would take you away,’” she recalls.

Even as an adult she was acutely aware of how Aborigines could be excluded from everyday life – even after winning Wimbledon.

“Before I started traveling overseas and I was with a friend and in those days I loved music and I loved disco dancing so she took me out but I wasn’t allowed in.

“That happened again in Brisbane and I was with two Aboriginal friends and this was just after I won Wimbledon. I said ‘don’t worry we’ll go somewhere else’. I think it hurt my friends more than me.”

The Goolagong family were the only Aborigines in the small town of Barellan in New South Wales.

Her father Kenny was a hard-working sheep shearer, who gained notoriety for being able to shear 100 animals in a day. The tennis star was the third of Kenny and Melindra’s eight children.

In her town, Goolagong Cawley became renowned for her tennis and was first invited to play on a court when a neighbor, Bill Kurtzman, caught her peering through the fence.

Following encouragement from locals, tennis coach Vic Edwards traveled up from Sydney to see the then 10-year-old play.

He persuaded her parents to let him bring her to the metropolis, enrolled her in school, coached her and, for a time, had her live with him.

She arrived in the big city with her first tennis dress, made for her by her mother from sheets and with equipment paid for by the people of her home town.

There was no pressure on her to play the sport by her parents and her mother would never ask on her return after a match if she had won, merely if she had had fun.

Encountering racism in tennis

Sydney was to provide no respite from the racism Goolagong Cawley had to face.

She especially remembers an incident while playing with Edwards’ daughter against two older ladies.

“One of the older ladies didn’t like the idea of two youngsters beating up on them. We won pretty easily. When it was time to shake hands.

“And she said; ‘This is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of playing a Nigger’ and I’ve never heard that before and I started to get really upset.”

As her mentor Edwards did his best to shield her from such prejudice.

“He taught me not to believe in what you read, believe in yourself so I never read anything. I realize now he was blocking me from a lot of things.

“I always just thought of myself as a tennis player. I was protected from a lot of publicity and politics of life.”

But her tennis success helped Goolagong Cawley break down barriers, becoming the first non-white to play in apartheid South Africa in a tournament in 1972.

Even today, she is helping indigenous people in Australia with the foundation she has set up with her husband, the former British tennis player Roger Cawley.

Her motto for it – as it was during her playing days – is “dream, believe, learn, achieve.”

The program encourages the children to play tennis but also to stay in school as they do so.

“The reason why I’m doing this is because I wouldn’t be here unless I had the initial support of the townspeople of Barellan. That’s why I am doing what I am doing today, trying to help young indigenous kids find their dream.”

By the time she arrived as a player at her dream location of Wimbledon, the then 18-year-old, also known as ‘La Belle Evonne,’ was already well known to the British press.

She was put on the show courts, unheard of back then for an unheralded young player.

“I didn’t realize they were writing about me before I got there,” she recalls. “They didn’t normally put a young person first time at Wimbledon on center court but they did with me.

“It really scared the hell out of me and I wanted to get off the court as quickly as possible and I did.”

On her return the following year in 1971, she beat the great Margaret Court and fellow Australian in the final, although graciously insists that was only because her opponent was pregnant and not moving to the best of her ability.

However, Goolagong Cawley repeated the feat on the same hallowed turf in 1980 with a three-year-old daughter in tow.

In so doing, she was the first mother to be crowned Wimbledon champion since before the outset of World War I. ‘Super girl’ had become ‘super mum.’

But for all the monikers, titles and accolades, “having fun” was the key motivation.

“I believe that’s what life is all about. I certainly had a lot of fun during my career playing tennis, doing the thing I wanted to do and to do it well.”