Warning: This story contains details and content that some readers may find distressing.
Australian tennis legend and proud Indigenous woman Evonne Goolagong Cawley has shared how she used her desire to achieve her dreams as an armor to overcome racism, in a raw speech at the Australian Tennis Awards.
While accepting Tennis Australia’s Spirit Of Tennis award, Goolagong Cawley said she never waivered from her childhood dream of playing on the “magical” turf at the All England Club, even when subjected to discrimination.
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Now a two-time Wimbledon champion and former world No.1, Goolagong Cawley recounted an incident of casual racism when she was playing at the White City Tennis Center in Sydney early in her career.
“I went through some tough times. I went through a bit of racism,” she said.
“I was playing doubles one day with my coach’s daughter Patricia.
“I think because we beat these two older ladies, they came up to shake my hand, and one of them said, ‘This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity of playing against a —— [racial slur].
“Obviously, I was very upset. I ended up going to the Aboriginal Affairs building where my friends were. They consoled me for the rest of the day.
“But that didn’t stop me because, you know, it was that dream – achieving that dream – of playing on that magical center court [at Wimbledon] that got me over a lot of that stuff.”
Coming from humble beginnings, the 71-year-old expressed her gratitude for all the doors tennis had opened for her – even after her playing days were finished.
“Tennis has been fantastic for me. The rest of my family played tennis too and enjoyed tennis, but I had that [childhood] dream,” she said.
“Eventually when I did start traveling overseas I enjoyed every part of it. Every time I got on the court I always thought I was lucky to be there in the first place, lucky to be found in a small country town, Barellan, and actually lucky not to be taken away [as part of the stolen generation].
“I remember when I went to visit my relations in Griffith we used to run and hide under the bed whenever the shiny car came down the road because Mum was worried we may be taken away.
“So every time I set foot on those courts I just felt [like] the luckiest person in the world. I was doing exactly the thing I wanted to do – play tennis. Even when I lost it really didn’t bother me for that reason because I was just lucky to be there.”
Goolagong Cawley also shared how her aspirations to play on the hallowed turf courts at Wimbledon began as a child when she read about a young girl who journeyed to London.
“The toughest part of my whole career was actually leaving home for the first time, and leaving my family,” she said.
“But I read that Princess magazine story about a young girl who was found and taken to this place called Wimbledon, and she played on this magical center court – and she won.
“I didn’t know this place [Wimbledon] existed and somebody came up to me and said, ‘No, that place is for real. It’s in England’.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I’d love to go there one day’.
“Once I heard that story it inspired me. Every time I hit the ball against the wall I used to pretend I was there – on that magical center court. Every time I’d go to sleep at night I’d dream about playing on that magical center court.
“And it was the townspeople that helped me achieve that dream. They raised funds for me to go to Sydney, gave me a racquet, [and] paid for my suitcase and my clothes. We couldn’t afford anything.
“My dad was a gun shearer in Barellan, mum stayed at home [and] looked after eight of us. But the one thing she instilled in me about tennis… [was] whenever I’d go and play tennis tournaments, Mum used to wave and say, ‘Bye, have a lovely day’. And then when I came back [home]she’d say, ‘Did you have a lovely day?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, Mum’. I did win a few times but I never ever told her, because she was more concerned with me having a lovely day.”
Goolagong Cawley was awarded the honor in recognition of her work with the Evonne Goolagong Foundation.
As hero and mentor to former World No.1, Ash Barty, Goolagong Cawley was thrilled to receive her award from the now-retired champion.
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“I just want to say how proud I am to be here,” she said.
“Getting this award is a real surprise I must admit.
“Getting it from someone who I just absolutely adore as a person or player [makes it even more special].”
Barty later claimed her history-making fifth Newcombe Medal.
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