1976: Chris Evert beat Evonne Goolagong 6-3, 4-6, 8-6
After seven years, Wimbledon had a women’s singles final that went the distance.
But that wasn’t surprising. After all, on the only two times Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong met in the final of a Grand Slam, they needed the third set to decide the winner. And they lived up to that billing when they stepped on Centre Court for the 1976 crown.
Unlike the 1969 final, when Ann Jones beat Billie Jean King 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 in a third set that proved to be a rather straight-forward affair, the Evert-Goolagong tie had all the makings of a thriller.
It all started with the sports transition to a new generation of Grand Slam contenders.
Evert, dubbed ‘The Ice Maiden’ for her remarkable composure under pressure, had replaced the legendary King as the biggest player from the United States. The 21-year-old, who had already won four majors at the time, including Wimbledon 1974, was a gifted player with flawless technique.
Similarly, Goolagong, 24 at the time, was a talented player known for her athleticism. And at the time, the five-time major winner had replaced all-time record 24-time Slam champion Margaret Court as Australia’s premier player.
Top seed Evert v second seed Goolagong was a heavyweight clash for the biggest of prizes.
Evert’s quick start
The scales, on paper, may have been tipped a little in favour of Goolagong before the match.
The Australian entered the final on the back of 26 consecutive wins, and was a player bred on grass courts, with impeccable volleying abilities. Evert, the younger of the two, was considered a clay-courter (at the time), but had a 16-match winning streak herself.
The American held serve in the opening game of the match, immediately broke her opponent on love. She’d eventually need just 28 minutes to seal the first set.
After the break, Goolagong, who had shown traces of complacency in her play till then, sprang back.
The Australian got the first break of the set to go up 4-2. Evert levelled things up again immediately.
With Evert serving at 4-5, Goolagong started to push the issue. Finally, in what turned out to be the longest rally of the match, the Australian broke the American’s serve at the most opportune moment in the set to win 6-4 and level proceedings.
Battle of wills
Goolagong continued the momentum that won her the second set, taking a 2-0 lead in the decider. She had started to strike the ball with purpose and started to attack more.
That’s when The Ice Maiden began to push back.
“It was a battle of the minds, a question of who was going to hang in longest and who was going to rise to the occasion,” Evert said afterwards to The New York Times. “I never gave up. I just tried to stay in there, to guts it out.”
She needed to up the ante to pick up her first ever win over Goolagong on grass.
She remained calm despite going down a break, but started to come up to the net more often than she had earlier in the match. Her aggressive intent earned her quick points and had caught Goolagong off guard.
Evert’s passing shots, against Goolagong’s fearsome serve-and-volley became all the more accurate and penetrative, and the set was soon back on serve.
At 4-4, Evert broke her opponent and was serving for the Championship for the first time. But Goolagong still had some steam left, and levelled proceedings again, and went on to hold serve to take the score up to 6-5.
Thereon, it was all the Evert show. The American’s groundstrokes were placed with purpose and her volleys were damaging. From down 5-6, she won the next three games to win the title, finishing off the match in style.
On match point, she invited Goolagong up to the net with a short backhand cross court slice. The Australian charged up the court, but played her volley straight at Evert with not much depth nor pace.
Evert chose an audacious two-handed backhand lob. Goolagong watched helplessly as the ball sailed over her and fell inside the lines. A moment later, Evert threw her racquet higher than the lob in celebration.
In just over two hours of tennis, in the battle of the two new tennis queens from their respective countries, it was the American who prevailed.