50-year rewind: Goolagong Cawley reflects on first slam triumph at RG

 - Dan Imhoff

Australian’s love of Paris begins with a title victory on the red clay as a 19-year-old on debut

Evonne Goolagong CawleyImage courtesy of Tennis Australia

Crushed ant-bed courts are the closest substitute to the velvet red clay of Roland-Garros for a talented child growing up in Barellan, a small country town in rural Australia.

For a 19-year-old Evonne Goolagong Cawley, they provided the foundation to a remarkable first Grand Slam title on debut in Paris in 1971.

As she set about carving her way through the women’s singles draw on those red courts 50 years ago, Goolagong Cawley immediately developed an affinity for the French capital.

“Oh I love Paris. I love walking around looking at the shops and the Champs-Elysees,” she said in an interview with Tennis Australia. “I thought it was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been and that was the one thing that was so exciting about my travelling around the world, was seeing these new places and the first time going to London, to Paris, which is even different again. Yeah I was a real tourist, I just loved it.”

The teenager had announced herself with a run to the Australian Open final earlier that season, but a trip to Wimbledon the year before was the only time she had ventured to a major on foreign shores.

Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Roland-Garros 1975©️ FFT

Seeded third, she cut a swathe through the Roland-Garros field.

The top two seeds, Margaret Court and Virginia Wade, had fallen before the fourth round, opening her path to the final. Goolagong Cawley never conceded more than five games in a match on her charge to the decider, where unseeded compatriot Helen Gourlay awaited.

“Helen was always a tough player. She was a serve-and-volley player, she moved well, volleyed well, drop shots, she had the whole works,” she said. “Her coach was Vic Edwards also so she knew my game [and] gave me a bit of a tough time but, yeah, that was my first Grand Slam [singles title] so obviously that was a really big thrill for me and I felt fantastic.”

The No.3 seed prevailed 6-3, 7-5 to become the first woman since Althea Gibson of the US in 1956 to win Roland-Garros on debut.

She also became the first Indigenous Australian to capture a major and later that year was awarded the nation’s top honour as Australian of the Year.

Evonne Goolagong CawleyImage courtesy of Tennis Australia

Goolagong Cawley has always made the most of opportunities – opportunities which she knew were not available to most Indigenous youths her age.

“I just felt that I was very lucky to be there in the first place, lucky to be found, from my hometown in Barellan, lucky not to be taken away by the Stolen Generation… So I think that’s why losing a match never really bothered me. I just felt really lucky to be there in the first place, to enjoy this wonderful game. It was my own little world.”

The girl from Barellan finished up winning seven Grand Slam singles titles, six in doubles and one in mixed.

Billie Jean King denied her back-to-back titles in Paris in the 1972 final and while she only contested the event four times in her career, Goolagong Cawley finished with a 16-3 record on the clay of Paris.

Li Na, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Roland-Garros 2011, final©️ Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

“I loved the surface in Paris. It was slower and I thought ‘Oh you can slide, you’ve got so much more time’… I felt very at home from the first day really,” she said. “I had plenty of time to get to the net, and just being able to get that variety of shots was very exciting for me.”

Goolagong Cawley’s influence continues to extend across generations, particularly on players in her home country. There is no greater advocate for the 69-year-old’s example, guidance and friendship than current world No.1, Ashleigh Barty.

“It's so hard to put into words how much of an impact Evonne has made in not only the culture of tennis in Australia but the culture and attitude and I think the way that, you know, really that people approach their tennis and enjoy their tennis. I mean, she had an incredible career,” Barty said in Paris.

“I don't think there's anyone more iconic or more special in tennis in Australia that's had such an impact.”