This was the sort of occasion remembered for a lifetime: a special setting, two irresistably radiant characters and a real-life story that borrows liberally from the stuff of fairy tales.
Once upon a time, in 1971, an Australian zephyr named Evonne Goolagong won Wimbledon, the tennis holy of holies. She was 19, too ingenuous at the time to appreciate her accomplishment. She realized this over the years, and dreamed of winning again. But, alas, it seemed not to be.
Now, nine years later, Cinderalla is the queen of the ball once again. As Mrs. Roger Cawley, the mature and worldly mother of a 3-year-old daughter, she won her second Wimbledon, and said through a few gentle tears of joy that this was one of the great thrills of her life.
The Centre Court of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club is a place where determination usually counts for more than sentiment. Today Goolagong, an enchantress who creates a unique sort of magic on the court, had both on her side as she outdueled gallant Chris Evert Lloyd, 6-1, 7-6, in a memorable final.
Playing with the grace, fluency and wonderfully instinctive feel for the ball that make her the most ethereal of tennis players, Goolagong maintained her suspect concentration through two sets and a 61-minute rain delay to beat her most redoubtable rival.
"I think I was really determined today. I thought if I was going to get this far, I wanted to really do it," said Goolagong, 28. She had been runner-up at Wimbledon in 1972-75-76, and in the U.S. Open four times, but hadn't won either of the game's two biggest titles since her youthful triumph over Margaret Court in 1971.
Determination always had worked to the advantage of Evert, a less gifted but more iron-willed competitor who played Goolagong for the first time in the Wimbledon semifinals of 1972. Evert had won 22 of 34 meetings with Goolagong, including four in a row over the last two years.
But today Goolagong never wavered, even when Evert -- who had won 25 matches without a defeat since returning to competition after a four-month layoff to recharge her motivation -- won four games in a row to lead, 4-3, in the exquisite second set and served for it at 6-5.
Using her racket like a magic wand, controlling the points with masterful variations of length, pace and spin, Goolagong broke back to force the decisive tie breaker and won it, 7 points to 4.
Drizzle began to fall again just after the brief, moving presentation ceremonies during which Goolagong received the champion's plate from the Duke and Duchess of Kent, but even that could't dampen her golden moment.
Smiling broadly, her brown eyes as misty as the day, she held the gleaming trophy horizontally over her head, using it as an umbrella, as photographers clicked away furiously from behind a restraining rope.
There could be no mistaking how much this title meant to Goolagong, the eternal bridesmaid, who had worked hard to regain her form after childbirth and a series of nagging injuries the past three years.
She seriously considered giving up her tennis career after daughter Kelly was born in 1977, and again when a painful Achilles tendon injury sidelined her for nine months after she pulled up lame in the Wimbledon semifinals of 1978.
As recently as seven weeks ago, she did not expect to play Wimbledon this year because of a back ailment. But she kept coming back, and believed in herself. Despite the doubts of her colleagues and other experts, she thought she still could win one of the major titles that had been so confidently predicted for her nine years ago, but had proved so elusive.
"Before when I've played big finals, I've played too loose," she said. "I haven't really wanted it enough. I think I wanted it more this time.
"I think it's made me more determined that I've had to come back so many times. I think I was getting a bit fed up with being runner-up."
The women's final started almost 90 minutes late, following the ill-tempered, three-hour men's semifinal in which John McEnroe beat Jimmy Connors on Centre Court.
It was overcast when the women began to play, but Goolagong showed quickly that she was in one of her sunny moods. She was hitting the ball as sweetly as she did in her semifinal victory over Tracy Austin, the 17-year-old U.S. Open champion, and using much the same tactics since Evert Lloyd, like Austin, is primarily a backcourt player.
When Goolagong is inspired, her strokes are as smooth and deliciously fluid as honey flowing, she was like that today. She won the first seven points, 10 of the first 11, by constantly changing the tempo of the rallies, moving Evert Lloyd around, drawing her in with softly angled shots, short to her two-fisted backhand, followed by passing shots or lobs.
Evert Lloyd was shaky, especially on the forehand, and was almost invariably making the error first. It was a masterful performance by Goolagong, prompting her victim to comment, "I don't think anone could have beaten her in that first set."
Goolagong held in the first game of the second set, and at 15-all on Evert Lloyd's serve in the second game, rain forced an interruption of just over and hour. Goolagong, serene and composed, went to the dressing room and took a shower. She changed her dress and had a cup of tea. When play resumed, it was if she had never stopped.
On the first point, she sliced a backhand winner down the line. She went on to break Everet Lloyd with a forehand that kicked up chalk on the sideline, and held after two break points for a 3-0 lead.
But Evert Lloyd -- winner of two Wimbledon, four French Open and four U.S. Open titles -- is a fighter. She dug in, purged the unforced errors from her game, and ran off four games in a row to turn this set into a battle.
As in her semifinal victory over Martina Navratilova, who had beaten her in the final here the past two years, Evert Lloyd changed her normal game and came voluntarily to the net from time to time, challenging Goolagong.
They played some marvelous all-court points, probing each other, using every inch of the grass and every shot in their repertoires.
The match became a gripping spectacle -- a reminder that tennis can be gusty, gritty and still lovely in terms of esthetics and sportsmanship.
These two longtime rivals are opposites in style and temperament, but they have a kindred spirit, a mutual respect and a shared understanding of how sublime victory would taste.
Some of the shots Goolagong made defied geometry. She is the best natural athlete and stroke player in the women's game, and today she was at one with the ball.
But Evert Lloyd conceded nothing. She is not as swift or improvisational as Goolagong, but her anticipation is unmatched. She made some astonishing "gets," particularly on seemingly winning volleys that she dug out and lobbed high and deep to get back into points.
At its best, the tennis was bold and breathtaking. Evert several times hit winning drop shots off her forehand return and other shots only a confident champion would attempt. Meanwhile, Goolagong stayed with her in deep, courageous rallies and darted to the net when she had the opportunity for easy volleys.
Goolagong broke for 4-4, then held serve after three break points and five deuces for 5-4. Evert held for 5-5, nervelessly hitting a perfect forehand drop shot winner off a deep rally at 30-30, two points from defeat.
Goolagong saved two break points from 0-40 in the next game, then lost her serve on one of the remarkable points that had become commonplace. Evert dug out another near-perfect volley, groped a lob to the baseline and Goolagong netted a difficult smash.
Evert served for the set at 6-5, but Goolagong played a strong game to breat at 15 and force the tie breaker. The first six points went with serve, but then Evert hit a forehand wide off a 31-stroke rally that explored the perimeters of the court.
That was all Goolagong needed because she did not lose a point on serve. Evert saved one match point, then uncharacteristically followed her serve to the net at 4-6. Goolagong slid a forehand return down the line, forcing a backhand volley error.
In the darkness before the rain, the players shook hands warmly and patted each other on the back like prize fighters embracing after a rugged and spectacular bout.
Flashbulbs popped, the crowd of 15,000 roared its approval, and Goolagong beamed.