Queensland, Australia, 13 November 2020 | Vivienne Christie

Among many life lessons in a world No.1 tennis career for Evonne Goolagong Cawley, the value of education was arguably the most important.

And that was especially true when it came to the much-loved Australian’s Indigenous heritage. After a career in which Goolagong Cawley lifted seven Grand Slam singles trophies, a permanent return home to Australia incorporated a powerful journey of self-discovery.

“I went to see my elders and went through women’s business, and they answered a lot of questions for me – about the connection to not just the earth, but the universe,” she relates.

Learning about the “Star People”, Goolagong Cawley discovered the Seven Sisters dreaming legend connected to the Pleiades constellation.

“I learned they gifted all the Indigenous people these gifts,” she explains. “Gifts about taking care of the land and connecting with the land and the animals.

“That answered a lot of questions for me but besides that, they gave me some strength to find out more. That’s all I’ve been doing since I came back to Australia, learning more about my Aboriginal heritage.”

There’s understandably a deep appreciation when Goolagong Cawley, from the Wiradjuri people, considers the importance of NAIDOC Week.

Marked this year with the theme “Always Was, Always Will Be”, Goolagong Cawley notes that honouring history also creates a stronger future.

“To me our elders, past and present, were and forever will be not just the caretakers of our country for 65,000 years but the true heart and soul of it. And for that I am truly proud,” she comments.

“We need to share their great knowledge with all Australians. Education is a key. The more we learn from each other, the more there will be true reconciliation in this country.”

Now based in Queensland, the former champion is helping to deliver that priceless education through the Evonne Goolagong Foundation.

Established in 2005, the not-for-profit group is designed to help young Indigenous people experience tennis and gain valuable life opportunities.

“What the program is all about is using tennis as a vehicle to create better education and health. We monitor them all the way through – from five years of age, right through until they get jobs,” Goolagong Cawley relates.

“As long as they stay in school. That’s the most important thing and that’s why I say education is the key for all of us.”

The National Indigenous Tennis Carnival in Darwin, a celebration of both culture and sport, is among many initiatives connected to the foundation. First staged in September 2018, the event has welcomed close to 200 participants in each of its two instalments.

“It’s becoming a big family. It just blew my mind that there was actually an Indigenous tennis tournament – the first-ever in this country,” says Goolagong Cawley.

“I’m obviously very proud of that fact and I’d like to thank the Northern Territory government, Tennis Australia and Tennis NT for setting all that up.”

Goolagong Cawley notes the privilege of being a role model to many young Australians, including world No.1 and National Indigenous Tennis Ambassador Ash Barty.

It was the encouragement of generous locals in her tiny hometown, Barellan in New South Wales, that enabled her own tennis journey.

“I’m just very proud. This is something that I wanted to do,” she insists. “I’m basically doing the same thing that the townspeople did for me. I wouldn’t be here unless I had their support in the very beginning.”

Always keen to acknowledge that special contribution, Goolagong Cawley is equally quick to note that her dream to become a major champion also incorporated countless challenges – including the intense loneliness she experienced after moving away from her family as a teenager.

“I share these stories with all the kids because I was very scared when I first went to Sydney. I cried nearly every other night, but I didn’t want to upset my family. And I wanted to achieve my dream of playing at Wimbledon one day,” she admits.

“It’s all about achieving dreams, so I’m just thrilled to be able to do this program to help a lot of other Indigenous kids stay in school and help them achieve their dreams too.”

Meanwhile, Goolagong Cawley’s own education continues. The former world No.1 returns often to the legend of the Star People and the associated significance as the land’s caretakers.

“I’m very proud of that – but I’m still learning,” enthuses the former No.1, who also hopes for broader progress.

“It’s time our First Peoples were included in our constitution. We are very knowledgeable. There’s so much more to learn.”