With Wimbledon win, Ashleigh Barty continues mentor’s work
By Christopher Clarey
Long before Ashleigh Barty became a Wimbledon champion, Evonne Goolagong Cawley believed Barty could be a Wimbledon champion.
“I do think it is 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 that stage, Barty was still outside the top 10 and working her way back after a 17-month break from tennis to play cricket. But Goolagong Cawley, who won the Wimbledon singles title in 1971 and 1980, spoke from experience and also from the heart.
Barty is not just a talent. She is a genuinely modest person: down-to-earth in a nation that still values and sees itself in that trait. Goolagong Cawley, like so many Australians, finds her relatable, but their connection runs deeper — texts, phone calls, face-to-face conversations, mentorship.
Australia has no shortage of former tennis stars. The sunburned nation has been one of the dominant forces in the sport since the early 20th century and has produced talents like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Margaret Court.
But Goolagong Cawley, an Indigenous 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 embraced that heritage as well as Goolagong Cawley’s long-running project to bring tennis and inspiration to Indigenous youth.
On Saturday, their paths converged again as Barty won the Wimbledon singles title on the same patch of grass where Goolagong Cawley won for the first time 50 years ago.
“They are connected by culture, and Ash’s win connects the generations,” said Billie Jean King, who lost to Goolagong Cawley in the semifinals in 1971 and was in the Royal Box on Saturday. “It was great that Ashleigh’s dream came true and extra special to be honoring Evonne’s legacy.”
Barty managed it by holding off Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 in the final, overcoming a significant hip injury that knocked her out of last month’s French Open and kept her from playing any grass-court events before Wimbledon. She said her team did not tell her how long the odds were on a quick recovery.
“They kept a lot of cards close to their chest,” she said. “There weren’t too many radiologists in Australia who had seen my injury. In a sense, it was a two-month injury. Being able to play here at Wimbledon was nothing short of a miracle.”
After missing nearly all of the 2020 season because of the pandemic, she has returned with full commitment and proven to be a true No. 1. She now has a second major singles title after winning the French Open in 2019.
Goolagong Cawley won first on the red clay in Paris, too, before triumphing at Wimbledon a few weeks later in 1971. Acknowledging the full circle of their achievements, Barty broke down on court when she was 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 Indigenous youth to believe in their dreams and to chase their dreams. She’s done exactly that for me, as well. I think being able to share that 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 serves. Barty, despite possessing some of the best volleys on tour, did not serve and volley once this year at Wimbledon. Goolagong Cawley was famously light on her feet, but her footwork was leisurely compared with Barty’s explosive movement and ability to run around her backhand to rip an open-stance forehand with heavy topspin. And although Barty hits her backhand drive with two hands, she and her role model both have relied heavily on a one-handed slice backhand.
It is a shot that was essential in Goolagong Cawley’s era when tennis was played primarily on low-bounce grass courts, and Barty has proved that it remains a great weapon on any surface.
The 6-foot-2 Pliskova spent much of the match bending lower than she would have liked to deal with the shot, but she made a match of it. Barty started the final at full throttle, winning the first 14 points and opening four games while Pliskova struggled to move her feet and swing freely. She conceded that she was flashing back to her 6-0, 6-0 defeat to Iga Swiatek in this year’s Italian Open final.
Pliskova was not alone with such thoughts. There is a special brand of pressure that builds when a major final starts in such lopsided fashion, a pressure not to spoil the occasion for fans and viewers who are watching with big expectations of their own.
“I was thinking about the final in Rome,” Pliskova said. “I thought, ‘No, this is not possible, this cannot happen again.’”
It did not, which ultimately softened the blow for a woman who remains the most successful active player without a Grand Slam title.
She cried at the awards ceremony, which is rare for Pliskova, who prefers to reserve her post-match tears for the locker room or the hotel room. But the disappointment would surely have been greater if she had not recovered from her shaky start.
Barty, who was unable to serve out the match in the second set, understands the challenge of the mental game all too well. After winning the girls’ title at 15, she failed to advance past the fourth round in her first four appearances at Wimbledon. Her potential was clear on grass, but her results were disappointing.
With reigning champion Simona Halep out of the tournament with a calf injury, Barty was given the honor that would have been reserved for Halep, playing the first women’s singles match on Centre Court.
Call it foreshadowing, just like her connection with Goolagong Cawley.
Forty-one years after Goolagong Cawley’s second title, Australia has another Wimbledon women’s singles champion, and it felt like anything but a coincidence as Barty played in an outfit inspired by the one the pioneer wore on her first championship run at the All England Club.
This was the tournament that Goolagong Cawley cared most about winning, the one that Australians spoke about with particular reverence because of their layered history with England. But this was the tournament that Barty, icon of a more multicultural Australia, envisioned, too, when she closed her eyes and let her imagination run.
“For Australians, there is such a rich history here,” Barty said. “For tennis players all over the globe, I feel like Wimbledon is where tennis was born essentially. This is where it all started. This is where so many hopes and dreams were kind of born.”
The singles trophy in hand and battling to keep her composure, Barty walked through the clubhouse after her victory. First she exchanged pleasantries with Prince William and his wife, Kate.
Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were waiting nearby. King gave her a fist bump. Navratilova gave her a message.
“Evonne’s very proud,” she said, flashing two thumbs up.