With Billie Jean King and Margaret Court both in semi-retirement, Evonne Goolagong and Chris Evert are easily the two best women tennis players in the world. During the last few years they had met 26 times, with Evert holding a six-match edge. But last week Goolagong went into the Virginia Slims Championship in Los Angeles with 15 straight match wins, one of them over Evert earlier this month in Philadelphia. Now, as they faced each other across the net, the question to be settled was, who is really No. 1?
Never mind that among the flags hanging from the rafters of the Los Angeles Sports Arena there was one from Austria but none from Australia. Evonne Goolagong, of the Barellan, Australia Goolagongs, who was the tournament's No. 1 seed, merely kidded officials about the goof. Never mind that on the Sporteze carpet used for the matches balls were slowed up as if they were bouncing off a surface of green Cream Of Wheat. And never mind that the overhead lights at one end of the court made the server want to confess all her crimes or apply suntan lotion.
All irrelevant. What actually mattered, and what might affect the outcome of the $150,000 tournament, was that Goolagong was happy. She used to travel the circuit with the gruff tennis teacher who discovered her, Vic Edwards, but now she roams the world with her husband of 11 months, Roger Cawley, and the change in her has been startling.
People on the Slims tour say that these days Goolagong (that is still her court name) is actually paying attention when she's out there with a racket in her hands. No more of the infamous "walkabouts," in which this richly talented woman would suddenly lose her concentration and start wondering what flavor of ice cream that man in the front row was eating. And no more halfhearted practices. Cawley, once a junior player in England, is her practice partner now and she enjoys the workouts. It has paid off. This season Goolagong won five regular Slims tournaments ( Chicago, Akron, Dallas, Boston and Philadelphia), clinched the Silver Ginny trophy for most points on the circuit and, according to one Slimsite, was "unbeatable."
And what of Chris Evert, who until recently had defeated Evonne in eight straight matches? Well, she had won four regular-season tournaments ( Washington, D.C., Detroit, Sarasota and San Francisco), but she lost in the first round in Boston after taking a layoff, and then was beaten in straight sets by Goolagong in the Philadelphia final. So Evert went into Los Angeles as the second seed and a bit shaky in the confidence department.
All the seeds advanced the first night, Evert over Lesley Hunt, Virginia Wade over Betty Stove, Rosemary Casals over Terry Holladay and, in a battle of European teen-agers, Britain's Sue Barker, 19, over the U.S.S.R.'s Natasha Chmyreva, 17. Chmyreva is almost certainly a future champion if her national association will give her some freedom, but that is unlikely. Her older countrywoman, Olga Morozova, spends four weeks on tour, is called home for a month, tours for a month—bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic until she feels like an Aeroflot stewardess working double overtime.
Apparently there had indeed been too much bouncing for Morozova. She was the only seeded player to be eliminated, beaten by Francoise Durr, the Algeria-born Frenchwoman who did not take a lesson until she was 19 and consequently has a limp-wristed backhand and a pittypat serve that makes purists cover their eyes. Marita Redondo, third-seeded Martina Navratilova and Goolagong all won.
Goolagong's 6-1, 6-2 victory over Cynthia Doerner was her 16th in a row without losing a set. The last set, and the last match, she lost was in San Francisco six weeks before, to Evert.