Margaret Court in her prime was a force of nature, an ‘Aussie Amazonian’, blessed with a powerful physique which had been trained to near perfection, enabling her to play an aggressive, attacking game which dominated her opponents. She struck the ball like she was on a single-handed (backhand) mission to deflate every single tennis ball ever manufactured. You can imagine the chair umpire wanting to call, “new balls, please,” at the end of virtually every point. The International Tennis Hall of Fame describes her game as ‘an assault’.
And by god, was she successful! Margaret Court was to tennis what Donald Bradman was to cricket. Court won more Grand Slam titles (64) than anyone else in the history of the game, in a reign that dominated world tennis between 1960 and 1975. Only Martina Navratilova (with 59) gets within 25 of her total. To put that into context in the modern era, Roger Federer currently has 19. And although Roger’s have all been in singles, Margaret Court won 24 Grand Slam singles titles and holds the record there as well. Court won the ‘Box Set’ of all 12 possible Grand Slam titles as an amateur, then came out of retirement to repeat the feat as a professional. On the tennis courts, Margaret Court had all the aces.
Duly, the plaudits followed. Court has been awarded an M.B.E., made an Officer of the Order of Australia; she’s been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, had postage stamps made with her likeness, and in 2003, one of Australia’s premier tennis courts was named after her.
And now things get interesting. Because although Margaret Court played tennis like some sort of demi-god, it is her religious views and outspoken opinions which really must call into question the validity of continued reverence for her. In a radio interview in 2017, Court claimed that a “gay lobby” was trying to “get [into] the minds of children” through Australia’s Safe Schools anti-bullying program.
Speaking about campaigns to allow same-sex marriage, Court suggested,
“Everybody knows that it is wrong but they’re after our young ones, that’s what they are after”.
And her views are not simply the ramblings of an elderly woman entering senility, although perhaps it would be kind to paint it that way. In her role as a Pentecostal minister, Court has regularly and vociferously spoken out against homosexuality and she has a platform to do so, with television and radio appearances linked to her ministry work. She even wrote an open letter to Qantas criticising their support of same-sex marriage threatening to boycott the airline.
Now, everyone is entitled to their opinions, of course, and the issue of same-sex marriage has proved to be a divisive one in many nations over recent years. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that marriage celebrates love between two people, and their sexual orientation makes no difference whatsoever to their ability to love each other (or to argue over who has to do the dishes). The spread of bigotry and encouragement of a strange sort of homophobic paranoia serves nobody.
Let me be absolutely clear: what she accomplished on the tennis courts was incredible and will stand in the annals of the sport for all time. However, I believe that we need to hold our sporting heroes to a higher standard. I want the legends of sport to be people for our young people to look up to and aspire to emulate, both on and off of the sporting arena.
And finally, some members of the ATP Tour have started to say the same thing. Laura Robson this week supported Billie Jean King’s consistent calls for renaming the court, stating,
“It’s a tough one because she obviously achieved so much but, if someone is being asked to play on that court and they don’t maybe feel comfortable, or people in the crowd feel a little awkward about sitting on there, then people need to have more of a think about it and decide what is best.”
Given that the current ATP Tour Code of Conduct runs to 46 pages specifically detailing the many ways current players can bring the game into disrepute, speaking out against a Grand Slam host requires some pretty strong feelings. And if the current players are held to a high standard of conduct, shouldn’t that also be applied to the legends of the game?
Generations of players will grow up dreaming of playing in the Australian Open. I want them to be able to feel confident and comfortable with that ambition, without it being tainted by the name that graces a court. For that reason, I believe that the Margaret Court Arena should be renamed.
I’d rather join the crowd in a stadium packed to the (Patrick) Rafters than step foot on Margaret’s court.