In 2007, the Australian Evonne Goolagong Cawley was officially awarded the place of world number one by the WTA, more than a quarter of a century after retiring. We tell you how it all came about...
The telephone rings at the Cawley’s house. Outside, like everyday of the year, or almost, the sun is shining in Noosa Heads, a small Queensland seaside town gifted with beautiful sandy beaches. It’s December 27th 2007. John, the husband answers. On the other end of the line, John Dolan, the man in charge of the communication at the WTA, gives him the unexpected news: “Can you tell your wife that she has been officially acknowledged as tennis world number one?” His wife is Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Australian “national treasure” as she was sometimes called, and one of the greatest champions in tennis history. In her trophy cabinet sit; four victories at the Melbourne Open, two successes at Wimbledon and one at Roland Garros, amongst other achievements. An icon of the Aborigine community, that calls for long gone memories. And for good reason, as the champion was playing professionally in the 1970’s and retired in 1983!
When Billie Jean King got involved
It is thus that a woman aged 56 was so honoured in late 2007. “It's just a wonderful Christmas present, really, to be recognised as being No.1 officially, and it's something that I'm very, very proud of” she said as she clutched her award in her hands. But if the news is good, it is definitely surprising. How can a player who retired more than 25 years ago receive such an honour now? Actually, it’s an old mistake that the WTA decided to fix recently. Lets’ go back to the origins of the professional female tour: A few months after the creation of the men’s ATP, the women’s tour was born at the end of 1975, with Chris Evert as first holder of the world number one spot. But from the beginning of the next year, the American’s supremacy became endangered by Evonne’s performances. “At the time, I was playing my best tennis. In my head, I knew I was the number one”, she remembers.
However, although the young Australian was winning the third of her four consecutive Australian Open titles, and then followed it up in the following weeks with victories in Chicago, Akron, Dallas, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the WTA authorities were clear: Chris Evert remained world number one ahead of poor Evonne. The Aussie player then saw her chances of being on top of world tennis fade away. When asked about it in the spring of 1976, just prior to Wimbledon, the other great American champion of the time, Billie Jean King, confessed she was surprised not to see the Australian at the top spot : “Evonne is clearly the number one” she said, while the pseudo-scientific calculus kept Evert at the top of the rankings. Until the 9th of July 1978 and the rise of a certain Martina Navratilova, it was Chris Evert and Chris Evert only, the sole ladies’ tennis world number one.
Some detective work
But in 2007, a blast from the past jolted the WTA into action. Found in St. Petersburg in Florida, in the WTA archives, never-before-seen sheet results from April to July 1976. And, precisely, on the 12th of April of that infamous year of 1976, Evonne Goolagong Cawley won her fourth consecutive title on American soil at the Los Angeles Masters by beating… Chris Evert - 6/3 5/7 6/3. John Dolan and his WTA team were then charged to do some “detective work” to recalculate the missing results into the rankings of the professional tour of the time. The verdict finally came back: the 26th of April 1976, Evonne Goolagong Cawley was ahead of Chris Evert by 0.8 points and was thus sitting in the top spot of the rankings! Her leadership only lasted for two weeks, before the American retrieved her throne from the 9th of May, but at least now it was official, the beautiful Australian was reinstated as the second world number one in the history of the ladies pro tour.
"The systems recording the results were lacking in reliability in the early years," apologizes Larry Scott, executive at the WTA, in case someone would decide to blame him for this late announcement. But in reality, in late 2007, nobody was complaining to see Evonne Goolagong Cawley being honoured so late. Not even Evonne, who knew, deep down, that she was the best player during that spring of 1976 and who could only be delighted to see the truth brought to light. You know, to help her enjoy with an even lighter spirit, her beautiful austral summer.
By Régis Delanoë