While so many people are down on Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, I’m not one of them. I’ve been there, Manti, I know what it’s like to have a fantasy relationship and the heartache of watching it all come apart.
I’ve been reminded of mine lately, not only because of your troubles, but I’ve been watching the ongoing Australian Open tennis championships. You see, your love affair with Lennay Kekua reminded me of my near engagement to the beautiful tennis star, Evonne Goolagong.
This will come as news to most people — including Evonne — as Goolagong married a fellow named Roger Cawley in 1975, to whom she’s still married. I’d better explain.
I was just out of college in 1971, only a little older than you, Manti, and had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. My roommate was a big tennis fan and turned me on to the wizardry of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe, and Billie Jean King. “Wait,” he said, “until you see Evonne Goolagong.”
“Yeah, she’s amazing. She just won the Australian Open and Wimbledon.”
He turned on the TV during some tournament and on came this gorgeous, sun-kissed, joyful woman who moved with unparalleled fluidity and style. It was love at first stroke. Or at least outback fever, as Goolagong was the child of Australian aborigines.
I’d watch all her televised tournaments, where she’d most often lose the final to King, Margaret Court, or Chris Evert. Her gracefulness and speed were Federer-like; her power and consistency, alas, were not. But when I finally got to see her live, she really won my heart, beating Virginia Wade in the 1973 final of the U.S. Indoor tournament in Hingham with the most aesthetically pleasing tennis games one could imagine, at least until Roger came along.
What chemistry we had that day. She stretching and smashing. Me clapping and smiling. Her slapping a cross-court winner. Me ordering a hot dog and spilling mustard on my jacket. I had a good seat and at one point our eyes even met. I think.
That’s when I got my idea. Bud Collins, an old pal and tennis reporter, would introduce us. Evonne would, of course, fall in love with me, and she and I would get married. We’d travel the world together, she training hard and making millions in Rome, Paris, London, Sydney, New York. And Hingham. Me in love, eating pasta and introducing Evonne to London theater and Paris opera after she dispatched her latest victim. Oh, and waiter, bring us another Daumas Gassac. She wouldn’t even have to change her name. In fact, I’d change mine. Eddie Goolagong. I liked the way it sounded.
A year later, I got my chance. Her discoverer and Svengali-like coach, Vic Edwards, had talked her into joining Billie Jean King’s loopy World Team Tennis league playing for the Pittsburgh Triangles. I was writing a piece about tennis for the Real Paper, a long-gone Boston weekly, and one day I got a call from the publicist for our town team, the Boston Lobsters, who were playing the Triangles that night. “If you’d like to interview Evonne Goolagong she’ll be practicing at [Boston University’s] Brown Arena and will have a window in about an hour.”
I was like a giddy schoolboy searching through my post-rocker wardrobe. The tan coat with the black velour collar? The purple shirt? The white T-shirt with red sleeves? Where the hell are my shades?
It turned out that I’d be sharing the interview with another young man. My heart was racing, but I managed to ask something halfway intelligent before he got on a roll about something or other. Team tennis vs. the real kind, maybe. I was so awestruck I didn’t know what to say. Suddenly, Edwards in his rough Aussie accent, came over and said, “All right, boys, Evonne has to practice.” We managed to get another five or 10 minutes and then I watched my dream slip away. But there’d be other chances, wouldn’t there?
No, there wouldn’t. In 1975 Goolagong married that Cawley fellow.
Goolagong — I still can’t bring myself to say Goolagong Cawley — came back to Boston to play in the Virginia Slims circuit in 1978, also at Brown Arena, and after she beat Evert, I talked my way into the press conference. She walked in, looked at me, flashed one of those heart-melting smiles and said, “Oh, hi!”
Could I have been a contender? What if I had insisted on five more minutes with Evonne years earlier?
Looking back on it, I kind of think that fantasy relationships are good for the soul. Unless you have stalking tendencies. Or make a public spectacle of yourself like some people we could mention, Te’o.
No matter. I’m happily married now. And I assume you are too, Evonne.
But whatever happens to either of us from here, ma cherie, we’ll always have Hingham. And Brown Arena.