WIMBLEDON, England – Long before Ashleigh Barty became a Wimbledon champion, Evonne Goolagong Cawley believed Barty could be a Wimbledon champion.
“I think it’s possible for her,” Goolagong said in a 2017 interview in Australia. “She has a game that can give so many players a difficult time.”
At the time, Barty was still outside the top 10 and was still working her way back after her 17-month break from tennis to play cricket. But Goolagong Cawley, who won the Wimbledon title in 1971 and 1
Barty is not just a talent. She is a truly modest person: down to earth in a nation that still values and sees itself in this trait. Like so many Australians, Goolagong Cawley finds her relatable, but their connection goes deeper – texts, phone calls, face-to-face conversations, mentorship.
Australia does not lack former tennis stars. The tanned nation has been one of the dominant forces in the sport since the early 20th century and has produced talents such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Margaret Court.
But Goolagong Cawley, a native Australian with an elegant game, is the former champion whose story spoke most powerfully to Barty. Her father Robert is part of the Ngarigo people, and Barty has taken that legacy as well as Goolagong Cawley’s long-standing project to bring tennis and inspiration to native youth.
On Saturday, their paths converged again as Barty won the Wimbledon singles title on the same lawn where Goolagong Cawley won for the first time 50 years ago.
“They are associated with culture, and Ash’s victory unites the generations,” said Billie Jean King, who lost to Goolagong Cawley in the 1971 semifinals and was in the Royal Box on Saturday. “It was great that Ashleigh’s dream came true and extra special to honor Evonne’s legacy.”
Barty managed it by keeping Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 in the final and overcoming a significant hip injury that knocked her out of last month’s French Open and prevented her from playing any turf events before Wimbledon. She said her team did not tell her how long the odds were on a quick recovery.
“They held many cards close to their chests,” she said. “There were not too many radiologists in Australia who had seen my injury. In a way, it was a two-month injury. Being able to play here at Wimbledon was nothing short of a miracle. ”
After missing almost the entire 2020 season due to the pandemic, she has returned with full commitment and proved to be a true No. 1. She now has another major singles title after winning the French Open in 2019.
Goolagong Cawley also first won on the red clay in Paris before triumphing at Wimbledon a few weeks later in 1971. In recognition of the full circle of their achievements, Barty collapsed on the pitch when asked about her mentor. But her voice was strong and clear when I asked her about Goolagong Cawley later in the afternoon.
“Evonne is a very special person in my life,” Barty said. “I think she has been iconic in paving the way for native youth to believe in their dreams and to chase their dreams. She has done exactly that for me too. I seem to be able to share it with her and share some pretty special victories now with her, to be able to create my own path is really incredible. ”
Their games have little in common. Women’s tennis has changed dramatically in 50 years, adding power and pace and becoming a baseline-dominated game, even on grass.
Goolagong Cawley, like most of her generation, served and volleyed regularly, even on second serving. Despite having some of the best salvo on tour, Barty did not serve and volley once a year at Wimbledon. Goolagong Cawley was famously light on her feet, but her footwork was relaxed compared to Barty’s explosive movement and ability to run around her back hand to tear an open position in advance with heavy topspin. And although Barty hits her backhand drive with two hands, she and her role model have both been heavily dependent on a one-handed disc backhand.
It’s a shot that was crucial in Goolagong Cawley’s era, when tennis was primarily played on courts with low bouncing grass, and Barty has proven that it remains a great weapon on any surface.
6-foot-2 Pliskova spent much of the match bent lower than she would have liked to handle the shot, but she made a match of it. Barty started the final with full throttle, winning the first 14 points and opening four games while Pliskova struggled to move her feet and swing freely. She admitted she blinked back to her 6-0, 6-0 defeat against Iga Swiatek in this year’s Italian Open final.
Pliskova was not alone in such thoughts. There is a special brand of pressure that builds when a major finale starts in such a skewed way, a pressure not to spoil the occasion for fans and viewers who watch with high expectations of their own.
“I was thinking about the final in Rome,” Pliskova said. “I thought, ‘No, this is not possible, this can not happen again.’ “”
It did not, which ultimately softened the battle for a woman who remains the most successful active player without a Grand Slam title.
She cried at the award ceremony, which is rare for Pliskova, who prefers to reserve her tears after the fight for the locker room or hotel room. But the disappointment would certainly have been greater if she had not recovered from her shaky start.
Barty, who was unable to serve the match in the second set, understands the challenge of the mental game all too well. After winning the girls’ title 15, she failed to advance past the fourth round of her first four appearances at Wimbledon. Her potential was clear on grass. Her results were disappointing.
But with reigning champion Simona Halep out of the tournament with a calf injury, Barty got the honor that would have been reserved for Halep, playing the first women’s singles match at Center Court.
Call it shadow, like her connection to Goolagong Cawley.
“I think if I could be half the person that Evonne is, I would be a very, very happy person,” Barty said.
41 years after Goolagong Cawley’s final victory there, Australia have another Wimbledon women’s singles champion, and it felt like anything but a coincidence when Barty played in an outfit inspired by the one the pioneer wore to his first championship race at the All England Club.
This was the tournament that Goolagong Cawley used to win the most, the one that the Australians talked about with particular reverence because of their layered history with England. But this was the tournament that Barty, icon of a more multicultural Australia, also imagined when she closed her eyes and let her imagination run wild.
“For Australians, there is such a rich history here,” Barty said. “For tennis players all over the world, I feel that Wimbledon is the place where tennis was essentially born. This is where it all started. This is where so many hopes and dreams were kind of born. ”
The single trophy in hand and struggling to keep her calm, Barty walked through the clubhouse after his victory. At first she exchanged pleasures with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
The duke noted that she did not appear to have nerves.
“Oh no, I did!” Said Barty.
Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were waiting nearby. King gave her a fist. Navratilova gave her a message.
“Evonne is very proud,” she said, blinking two thumbs up.