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The WTA recently realized and immediately admitted (kudos!) that because of some sloppy "bookkeeping" in its computer rankings system way back in 1976, Evonne Goolagong Cawley actually achieved the No. 1 ranking (for the first and only time) for a two-week period in the spring of that year. So the record has been corrected and history rewritten: the books now have Cawley among the 16 elite women who have been ranked No. 1 since 1976.
Cawley's reaction to this news was typical: Instead of expressing outrage, or demanding a readjustment of her endorsement monies (sponsors often offer bonuses for hitting certain ranking benchmarks), Goolagong said the news was a "great surprise" (in multiple senses of the adjective), recalled that during that period she had really been "on a roll," and admitted that she felt "proud" of the achievement.
All of which reminded me of how much we miss Goolagong. She won seven Grand Slam titles in 16 trips to finals. She lost more of those finals than she won, for the same reason that so many people adored her: Her style was instinctive, light, crafty and seemingly effortless. Her great rival, Chris Evert, was -- by contrast -- a Prussian. If discipline was Evert's trademark, Goolagong's was creativity.
In a fit of pique at the height of their rivalry, Chris once snapped at me: "Everyone knows that you're in Evonne's camp, and not mine." She was right. Before you had Federer vs. Nadal, you had Evert vs. Goolagong. Everyone more or less had to pick a side, even if he or she appreciated both players. The contrast in their games, their personalities, and the qualities they projected on the court was that strong and compelling. They presented the greatest of contrasts in the Golden Age of women's tennis, an era full of them (what with Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Evert, Goolagong, Tracy Austin and Martina Navratilova, all overlapping).
Trying to describe Goolagong's free-flowing, graceful, nimble game, even the most hard-bitten and gin-soaked of pressmen lapsed to bouts of purple prose. She had a game like a "summer breeze" or "free-flowing jazz"; nobody ever won more style points than Goolagong. She played tennis the way the Brazilians play soccer. And because Goolagong was an aborigine, you couldn't wade through a piece about her with coming across the phrase "great natural talent" or the word "walkabout."Goolagong found all of this both flattering and amusing -- the latter because there has never been a women's champion as amenable, humble and easygoing as she. But underneath that lovely tawny complexion and large, chestnut-brown eyes, Goolagong was tough. Although she suffered lapses of concentration, served tentatively and never generated enough power to blow away opponents, she was cool, poised and determined. She had to be, given her life story; it's too complex to go into here, but I urge you to check it out.
One single achievement stands out in my mind as a testament to Goolagong's resilience and steel, and gives her a distinction that might never be challenged: She was the first mother in 66 years to win a major (Wimbledon, 1980, at the age of 29). It was a remarkable feat.
To me, Billie Jean King is the ranking icon of women's tennis, but Goolagong remains the sport's ultimate role model. It's great to see that justice has been served.
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