Up on the high plains and peaks of Ngarigo country in southern NSW, the air is thin and fresh. Your head is, literally, in the clouds. It is country known for its magical white-as-snow alpine dingoes and stumpy trees that rail against the extreme cold. And for centuries, the mountains and gullies protected the Ngarigo people, but come high winter they would make the treacherous journey down to the warmer lowlands, with eventually catastrophic results – disease, massacre and dispersal.
This is the country that runs through Ash Barty and fuels (among other things) her colossal talent. No matter what she puts in her hands, be it a racquet, a cricket bat or a golf club – Barty excels. On Saturday night and into the early hours of Sunday, we all rose as one to bear witness to an incredible feat by this Ngarigo woman. Barty was forced to retire from the French Open with a chronic hip injury and had only five days hitting out before she commenced her Wimbledon ascent. It was as if we were climbing that mountain with her. Every advance. Every stumble. Until she was holding that winner’s plate on centre court, having defeated Karolina Pliskova in three sets.
Barty had an edge over her competitors at Wimbledon. Fifty years earlier, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley had won this same tournament for the first time, when she was just 19 years old. And Barty’s desire to honour her good friend set her apart from the pack when she stepped on to court. In her post-match interview on Sunday morning, when Barty uttered between tears, “I hope I made Evonne proud”, her Wimbledon manifesto was writ large for everyone. Evonne confirmed on Sunday she was proud as punch. She won’t be the only one.
And if we ever needed uplifting as a nation, now is the time. But like the stratum of an ancient riverside midden, the two victories at Wimbledon in 1971 and 2021 also allow us to measure the progress of this country we call Australia.
One image from that 1971 tournament comes to mind: a teenaged Goolagong wearing her Dunlop vollies and white tennis dress and framed in a towering window among the ivy-covered walls of Wimbledon. It’s a striking image because Goolagong, in that moment, was allowing herself to be seen.
For decades, Indigenous children were hidden and shamed in Australia, taken from their family homes in the failed experiment of assimilation. Goolagong-Cawley was no different. Her mother would hide her and her brothers and sisters from the welfare authorities to keep the family together.
This is why it smarts when Barty is referred to as the “little Aussie battler” – a moniker thrown around like so many nationalistic lollies. For Indigenous Australians, Goolagong-Cawley will be forever known as a Wiradjuri woman and Barty as a Ngarigo woman and this distinction is important. Our Aboriginality is as diverse and rich as the landscape.
Sometimes White Australia likes to separate us from our country, our heritage. It’s awkward having to admit the uneasy foundations of this “nation”. On Wikipedia, racist users have been trying to eliminate the word “Indigenous” from Barty’s profile for years. When Auntie Barbara McGrady, a Gomeroi sports and community photographer, noted on Facebook that “in just about every media report, they refer to Ash Barty as Australian, never Indigenous…. Funny that”, another user responded: “Yeah, they only call us “Aboriginal” when we’ve committed a crime.”