When Ashleigh Barty was giving her post-match speech after winning her first Wimbledon title on July 10 2021, she was her serene self that we have come to appreciate during her interviews. Unfazed largely by triumph or defeat, Barty kept her composure throughout but the moment she was asked about following in the footsteps of Evonne Goolagong Cawley, her voice broke as she just managed to get out the words: “I hope I made Evonne proud!”
The 25-year-old Australian – who wore a specially-designed dress in tribute to Cawley’s iconic scallop one she sported in 1971 – added the Wimbledon crown to her 2019 French Open title. And Barty won her first Wimbledon 50 years and a week after fellow indigenous Australian Cawley’s maiden crown, beating Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 6-7 (4/7), 6-3 in the final on Saturday.
The triumph of 1971 is, indeed, one for the ages.
“It was the age of nine that I dreamed about winning Wimbledon,” Cawley said, appearing as a guest on the television news program Where They Are Now Australia in 2007. “I read this cartoon magazine story called Princess Magazine, about a young girl who was found, trained and taken to this place called Wimbledon, where she played on this magical center court and eventually won. Every time I went to hit against a wall I used to pretend I was there, and every time I went to sleep I would dream about playing on that magical court.”
But to understand how crazy a dream it was, one has to understand where she came from. And once you do that, you’ll realise that impossible is but a word. Here’s her origin story:
“Goolagong grew up in the wheat town of Barrellan in New South Wales, one of eight children. Her mother Melinda was a homemaker and father Kenny a sheepshearer. Their simple one-story home was a tin shack with dirt floors and no electricity.
“But moreover, Goolagong was born into Aborigine heritage, the only family of its kind in town, and as light-skinned members of the Wiradjuri tribe, the Goolagong kids faced prejudice, and faced a cloudy and uncertain future. The Australian government’s policy at the time was to forcibly remove Aborigine children from their families and relocate them to camps where they could be properly educated and integrated into white society.”— International Tennis Hall of Fame (Biography)
She stayed with her parents and gradually started picking up the game of tennis. Her introduction to the sport came early, and at the age of five she had become a ball girl at the Barellan War Memorial Tennis Club, where she earned some change retrieving balls.
Cawley didn’t have a tennis court to have a hit on but she would hit the ball against any flat surface she could find. Her first racquet had no strings, it was a paddle but that didn’t stop her. For hours on end, she would hit the runner ball on the wall and hone her skills. Finally, it was her aunt who gifted her a racquet.
Then, one day, she was spotted peering through a fence at Barellan War Memorial Tennis Club by club president Bill Kurtzman, who asked her if she’d like to join in. The rest as they say is history.
Another famous coach, Vic Edwards, heard about her and made his way from Syndey to have a look. So impressed was he that he convinced Goolagong’s parents to let him take the 14-year-old back with him for schooling and coaching.
According to Edwards in Contemporary Authors, the young Goolagong’s “most impressive quality was her grace around the court. And she could hit that ball really hard, right in the center of the bat. She had a homemade shot, a backhand volley, and it was a beauty.”
The move brought her instant results. At age 15, Cawley won the New South Wales Championship and in 1967 competed in her first Australian Nationals.
Cawley’s game was built around her quick feet. She seemed to glide on the court with little effort and Billie Jean King once likened her movement to that of a panther. And Barty said in her tribute recently: “As Martina Navratilova recalled, Evonne didn’t serve and volley...she’d saunter and volley.”
Cawley, at 19, finally made her Wimbledon debut in 1970, and lost in the first round to an American player, Peaches Bartkowitz. When she got off the court, her coach said, ‘maybe I better enter you into the “plate” event for second and third round losers, that way you’ll get used to the atmosphere, the crowds, the court.’
She got used to it alright. She ended up winning the plate event and then won the big trophy the following year.
It wasn’t her only Wimbledon title either. Another one followed in 1980, when she was competing after becoming a mother. She defeated Chris Evert in the final to become the first mother since Dorothea Lambert Chambers to accomplish that feat in 1914.
She finished her career with a French Open title (1971), Wimbledon Ladies Singles championships (1971, 1980) and four straight Australian Open Singles titles (1974-77). Despite reaching the US Open final on four consecutive occasions, from 1973 to 1976, the trophy eluded her.
“On Centre Court, with cheers of millions ringing in her ears, she gave hope to indigenous families across Australia”— Ash Barty
Barty said Cawley is such an inspiring person her achievements make people feel they too can turn their dreams into reality.
“Evonne has guided the way,” said the 25-year-old at her pre-tournament press conference. “She’s created a path for all of us as Australians, but as a family and for our heritage to know that there is an opportunity to chase after your dreams and to do what you love. She’s created a legacy like no other in Australia.”
Watch Ash Barty’s tribute, the one she narrated through the Wimbledon channel, to Evonne Goolagong Cawley:
Bonus watch: A song for Evonne, named ‘Evonne’