They met for the first time at Wimbledon in 1972, in a semifinal match so radiant with youthful verve and promise that the mind's eye still twinkles at the memory of them scampering around the Centre Court: kids of constrasting styles and temperaments who had grown up on opposite sides of the world but had clearly been born to meet on this particular, very special plot of grass in southwest suburban London.
Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong were the princesses of tennis then, heiresses to the throne soon to be abdicated by Billie Jean King and Margaret Court. They had emerged suddenly and unexpecedly the previsous summer, like storybook characters, Cinderellas in sneakers sent by some fairy godmother to inject new life into the women's game.
Goolagong came gliding and giggling out of Australia and conquered King and Court at Wimbldeon in 1971, winning the title at 19. She didn't play the U.S. Open that year, however -- her then coach and guardian thought it wise to delay her American debut for a year -- and in her absence, along came Evert. She reached the semifinals unseeded with a series of dramatic victories and was immediately hailed as Miss American Pie, a 16-year-old Fort Lauderdale schoolgirl with a gorgeous tan, unflappable manner and a backcourt game that wouldn't quit.
Through a miraculous quirk of history, they had grown up in the jet age and become the two international darlings of tennis without every playing or even setting eyes on each other. They were introduced at a tournament in Dallas early in 1972, but didn't face each other across a net until Wimbledon that year.
Their first match was an enchanting occasion at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, the springtime of two great talents that blossomed differently, and went on to very differnt sorts of careers.
Goolagong won the first encounter after being down a set and 0-3, but she lost to King in the Final and has been mostly a bridesmaid in major tournaments ever since: runner-up three times at Wimbldeon and four times at the U.S. Open.
Evert beat her the next time they played, and 22 of 36 times over eight years. She became the No. 1 player in the world and monopolized that position for five years until Martina Navratilova supplanted her last year.
Evert has captured two Wimbledons, four French Opens, four U.S. Opens, and just about every other title worth winning in women's tennis.
Now, by what seems a curious twist of fate, they are back in the Wimbledon final again. They last met in the title round of a Grand Slam tournament in 1976 -- Evert beating Goolagong that year at Wimbledon, 6-3, 4-6, 8-6, and the U.S. Open, 6-3, 6-0.
Four years have passed, and much has happened.
Goolagong, who married former British junior champion Roger Cawley on the eve of Wimbldeon in 1975, is the mother of a three-year-old daughter, Kelly.
Evert also married an Englishman, British Davis Cup player John Lloyd last year. She has slipped from the pinnacle she occupied so long and in such exemplary fashion, and considered retiring from tennis last winter when it appeared she could no longer beat Martina Navratilova and Tracy Austin, the two players now ranked above her. But she returned to the circuit at the Italian Open in May, and has won 25 straight matches without a defeat since then. At age 25, she is eager again.
Evert and Goolagong will play each other Friday afternoon for the most cherished title in tennis, one either of them would relish even more since most people considered them beyond winning again.
"I think everyone had counted me out -- along with Evonne and Billie Jean (a narrow loser to Navratilova in the quarterfinals)," bubbled Evert today after her 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 triumph over Navratilova. "Tracy and Martina were getting so much publicity, and they were both saying that they thought they were going to win, and very often that backfires on you. Evonne and I quietly went through the tournament, and felt no pressure."
The scoreboard on Centre Court Friday will read "Mrs. R. Cawley" vs. "Mrs. J. M. Lloyd." The young ladies who belong to those names have changed and matured considerably since we first made their acquaintance at this same cathedral of tennis, but they are the still same people.