Evonne Goolagong Cawley, the Australian tennis champion who won seven major titles between 1971 and 1980, was retired and living well outside the tennis bubble when Roger Federer hit his stride. Even she could not help but notice.
Watching him play, Goolagong was struck by his skills. They seemed to be old school with a contemporary twist. Celebrated in her prime for her balletic movement and liquid, single-handed backhand, Goolagong felt an immediate affinity with Federer.
"I thought, 'Wow,' here was someone with all the skills of his hero, Rod Laver," Goolagong told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "He was magical to watch. Every time he turned his shoulder and then hit that one-handed backhand, it took me back. I thought, 'Oh, that must have felt good!'"
Goolagong, now 68, also found herself wondering if Australia would ever produce another woman player who had a comparable skill set that included a one-handed backhand slice and great touch around the net, abetted by a communicable passion for the game.
"And now here we have Ash [Barty]," Goolagong said. "She has all the old skills and values, and you can see that she just loves to play."
Barty, the defending French Open champion, is currently in the hunt to become the first Australian of either gender to win the singles title at the Australian Open since Chris O'Neil won the women's event in 1978. Goolagong won the last of her four Australian Open titles in 1977, the year when she also won the French Open. She missed out on completing a career Grand Slam by faltering at the US Open despite playing in four finals there.
Barty, now 23, has known Goolagong since she made her Australian Open debut in 2012. "I could tell she had it when I saw her that day [in 2012]," Goolagong said. "She played this one point in which she hit every shot. She lost that match but I knew then she would develop into what she is now."
When Barty hit an emotional wall in 2016 and quit the game for some 18 months, Goolagong was there for her. According to Ashleigh's father, Rob, the first text message his daughter received when the news of her hiatus broke was from Goolagong, who cheerily advised her, "Good decision. Go and wet a line and catch a few fish."
Apparently, it was just what Barty needed to hear. It was also the kind of wisdom that helped endear Goolagong to scores of fans and fellow players during a career that formally ended in 1983.
It takes a village
During her playing days, Goolagong was carefree, blithe, seemingly oblivious to the pressures and anxieties of her profession. Legend had it that her name in a long-lost language meant, "Tall trees by still water," although an anthropologist later suggested the more accurate translation might have been "Nose of the kangaroo."
When Goolagong left the tennis circus, she had no desire to return or even to follow it. She yearned to explore her roots as an indigenous woman.
"I had to learn about who I really [was]," Goolagong said, "That was important to get me through the difficulty I had in adjusting to life after the tour."
The Goolagongs were the only Aboriginal family in the small town of Barellan in New South Wales. Her first racket, as she likes to tell the indigenous children who attend the various camps and events run by the Evonne Goolagong Foundation, was a board prised off an apple crate by her father, an itinerant sheep shearer, wheat grader and shade-tree mechanic.
At age 8, Goolagong read a story in "Princess" magazine about a young girl who trained in tennis and was ultimately transported to this magical-looking place called Wimbledon. "I didn't know it [Wimbledon] existed," Goolagong said. "Somebody told me it was in England, London. So every time I hit the ball against the wall I would pretend to be there."
The journey in real life took a bit longer. Goolagong hit against any firm surface she could find, from water tanks to walls of houses, first with the board, later with hand-me-down rackets.
"When I heard how Ash used to hit the ball against the side of her house, it reminded me of me," Goolagong said. "I would try to see how many times I could hit the ball against the wall on one bounce before I missed. Every day I would write the number in the dirt and return the next day to try to beat it."
Soon, the keen young athlete caught the eye of Barellan's townspeople. The first to notice her exceptional talent was a local man named Stan Smith (no relation to the American tennis champion). The Goolagongs' next-door neighbors were the Dunlops. Her life was taking on the properties of a song by the Beatles.
"Some of the farmers and the president of the local tennis club drove me to small tournaments," Goolagong said. "The townspeople took around a hat and collected funds for me to be able to go to Sydney for further training. They bought my suitcase, my clothes ... everything. We didn't really have any money."
Currency, no, but those dreams were realized at a heavy price. In Sydney, Goolagong became the protege of a well-known coach, Vic Edwards. She lived in his home as a member of the family. Edwards, a controlling, surrogate father, seemed a relic of the Victorian era. He also harbored demons that would assert themselves as time went on and Goolagong found success. By 1971, Goolagong, just 20, won the Australian and French Opens. In 1974, Goolagong's father, Kenny, was killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing a road at dusk. He was just 44. Evonne spent the night under sedation at a hotel in Houston, a match against Chris Evert canceled and Edwards adamantly refusing to allow Goolagong to return home for her father's funeral.
Nine months after the death of her father, on the eve of Wimbledon, Goolagong secretly married a former British junior tennis player, Roger Cawley. The couple soon broke completely from Edwards. Goolagong's appetite for tennis returned and she flourished. She eventually became the only mother to have won the Wimbledon title since 1914, overcoming Evert in the final in 1980.
Aboriginal elders helped Goolagong face the unresolved anger and guilt she felt about not standing up to Edwards when he forbade her to attend her father's funeral. Goolagong went through "women's business," a spiritual, somewhat secretive, ritual through which indigenous women explore their heritage. She became acquainted with tribal Ngangkari healers.
"I would never have gotten where I was without support," she said. "When we came back from America [the Cawleys lived in the United States for many years], I told Roger, 'I want to do for others what the townspeople did for me.'"
'They all identify with Ash'
Goolagong served in various roles as a consultant in indigenous sport for some years, culminating with the formation of her eponymous foundation that aided indigenous children in 2005. It would become the focus of the Cawleys' life together, and remains so today. While Barty was busy pushing her way to the Australian Open quarterfinals, the Cawleys were just 12 miles away, but in many ways worlds apart, working at Monash University with indigenous children who earned places in the Evonne Goolagong Foundation's National Development Camp.
Between hitting sessions and presentations by a host of experts on subjects as far ranging as nutrition and career planning, the children watched Australian Open tennis, especially when Barty was playing. "Oh, they all identify with Ash," Goolagong said. "Even while the camp was going on they were finding ways to watch and cheer for her. She's a wonderful role model for our kids."
Goolagong's program is focused less on pure tennis development and more on providing campers with the tools to be successful in whatever they choose to pursue. "Our goal is keeping kids in schools and helping them achieve their dreams. It's all about having a healthy body and a healthy mind."
The program, Goolagong said, has been a great hit. The retention rate in school (through Grade 12) has been nearly 100 percent. The foundation has locked down 71 scholarships approved by the Institute of Quality Education, and 18 alumni of the program are currently enrolled in colleges or universities.
"We just produced our first two doctors," Goolagong said. "There will be more."
Goolagong's activities did not go unnoticed by the Bartys. Ash has said her own interest in her heritage was fueled when she was about 8, and her father, Rob, sat her two older sisters down to explain their roots. Rob, a member of the Ngaragu tribe, worked for the government in indigenous affairs in the Australian state of Queensland for decades. Fascinated from the start, Ash embraced her heritage and eventually came to learn about Goolagong's own aboriginal pride, and her work with indigenous youth.
"When I first met Evonne, I was gobsmacked," Barty told The Australian newspaper late in 2019, during a rare public appearance with Goolagong at a clinic for indigenous children in Cairns. "She is this incredible lady who had a remarkable career. ... She has paved the way for so many people. When I was a bit older, I began to understand just how much of an impact she truly had and how much time and energy she has invested into creating opportunities for all indigenous youth across the nation."
Goolagong has communicated with her friend on only one occasion in recent days, sending Barty a congratulatory text Friday when she was named 2020's "Young Australian of the Year," and plans to attend the women's final if Barty advances.
"Maybe one day it would be nice if we went out together and did women's business," Goolagong said.
It could happen, but like Goolagong in an earlier era, Barty has some tennis business to take care of first.