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Goolagong soaks in celebrations during Australian Open milestone

Andrew Mathieson -

When Ash Barty went out on her swansong and won the Australian Open in 2022, she was lucky to navigate her way around a draw filled up full of talented Eastern Europeans.

So it was almost by chance back to the bygone era of her heroes, Evonne Goolagong, from her 1974 career first, when Barty just happened to instead face an American, Danielle Collins, for that elusive title.

Four of the Americans in fact she played from the round of 16 until Goolagong utterly surprised Barty by presenting that prized silverware for the final by avoiding all of the Azarenkas, Rybakinas, Sabalenkas, Svitolinas, Swiateks and Pavlyuchenkovas.

Back in Goolagong's prime, nearly the entire women's draw was exclusively represented by the Brits, Americans and, of course, the hosts.

Just 10 of the Australian Open players 50 years ago were drawn from elsewhere in the world.

"The first Australian Open win was extra special because I was in the final three years before that and Margaret Court beat me, Virginia Wade beat me, then Margaret Court beat me again, before I was finally able to win it," Goolagong told the crowd this week on centre court at the tournament.

"It meant the world to me and particularly in front of your own crowd.

"It was absolutely amazing – they actually spurred me on."

A lot more than casting off the shackles has changed over time between Australia's two Aboriginal tennis icons each securing a maiden grand slam on home soil – including exactly that, the soil.

Goolagong won all of hers down the road from Rod Laver Arena at the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club, when the four annual tournaments were divided between either grass or clay, prior to hard courts beginning to emerge from lesser indoor tournaments.

When Goolagong won a startling fourth Kooyong crown in 1977, this Australian Open was the last grand slam of the year, not the first, and was held over December instead of January.

Harder to believe that the Wiradjuri woman from the Riverina town of Barellan had already held aloft the trophies for the French Open, for Wimbledon and for the US Open, twice, before the breakthrough and most valuable win close to her hometown and closer to her heart.

The celebration of the milestone this year seemed to hit her more than her humility on the day.

"I honestly don't know what to say," Goolagong said.

"I mean, 50 years, first of all. When I first heard that, I thought, 'jeez, that makes me feel old'.

"But, you know, 50 years is a very long time, and time passed quickly because I guess I was having such a good time, and it meant so much to me."

So would a commemorative Australian Open 2024 coin that Gunnai, Wiradjuri, Gunditjmara and Yorta Yorta artist Lyn-Al Young designed in Goolagong's image to appear 50 years younger than she is today.

The Australian press and even tournament organisers of 1974 built up a rivalry for the title as a battle between fancied American Chris Evert and the hard-luck story of Goolagong.

And that is even before the tournament commenced, as the top two seeds advanced to the anticipated final without Goolagong's past two nemesis, Court and Wade, not in sight.

Evert, who would ironically not win the Australian Open until a further eight years – but still went on to snatch an incredible 18 grand slams – did not lose a set at Kooyong until she went head to head with Goolagong on New Year's Eve.

The tables were turned for Goolagong after she was taken to three sets in the previous quarter-final and semi-final matches.

Goolagong Cawley earned 72 singles, 45 doubles and three mixed doubles tour championships throughout her career. (Image: Tennis Australia)

The 24-year-old initially held off Evert 7-6 during a tie-break first set before the visitor hit back to claim the second 6-4.

But Goolagong's strength in those past three set matches was her endurance, winning 6-2 in the quarters and 6-1 in the semis before thumping home a 6-0 advantage in the final against an outplayed Evert.

The one year that defending champion Court did not front the tournament was arguably the year that changed Goolagong's career forever.

She never lost to the country's most successful female player again in Australia.

"I felt so comfortable after winning that first one that, you know, I won the next three in a row," Goolagong said.

"I always enjoyed, one, playing on grass, and it was obviously great big thrill for me, and you know to be able to beat Margaret Court on the way up, I mean, was great.

"She was somebody that I admired very much and she beat me most of the time.

"When I finally did beat her, I thought, 'wow, maybe I'll do alright'."

She did more than alright. Goolagong championed Aboriginal people by her actions on the sporting field.

That unassuming nature reflected the times after Goolagong had been plucked from absolute obscurity in her hometown by tennis figure and area resident, Bill Kurtzman.

He noticed a shy girl always peering through the fence at the courts in Barellan and invited her to play in what was a traditionally conservative, white rural town that opened their arms up to her coming from the only Aboriginal family living among their community.

Previous to that encounter, Goolagong picked up the back of an apple crate and would whack tennis balls against a flat surface she could find.

The simple and ideal ways on how to go about her tennis remained a reflection of her attitude leading into that 1974 Australian Open.

The National Indigenous Times found a black-and-white interview in the archives of the web of Goolagong talking about her outlook that rounded up 11 grand slam wins and 82 tournament titles.

"The main thing I want out of tennis to enjoy it as much as possible," Goolagong said.

"You know, I don't want it to get to the stage where it's more or less I have to play the game because I have got a lot of enjoyment out of it through travelling and meeting a lot of new people."

While Goolagong earned $US1,399,431 by the time of her retirement in 1983 – worth $US5,348,672 today and $8,136,618 in Australian dollars – amassing such wealth was never the priority.

"Tennis has become such a big business that you more or less accept it, but I haven't got to the stage where I think more about how much prizemoney I have won or if I play this, I get this much.

"It really hasn't come into it yet.

"So I haven't really set a time when I am going to stop, you know or anything like that, but I'd like to keep continue playing it until I do get sick of it and just see how I go."

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