Margaret Court – The Controversial Queen of Australian Tennis

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As Serena Williams serenely moves through the draw in Melbourne, she moves ever closer to breaking the Open-era record of 22 women’s Grand Slam singles titles, which she currently shares with Steffi Graf. However, even if she breaks that record in Melbourne, she will still be one short of the all-time record of women’s Slam singles titles, which is held by Australia’s own Margaret Court. Nevertheless, Court, for all her undoubted greatness as a tennis player, has become incredibly controversial in her career after tennis. Having “got God,” she became an evangelical Christian, not only becoming a Minister but eventually founding her own ministry, the Margaret Court Ministries. In the process, she has become an outspoken opponent of LGBT rights, which has obviously drawn criticism from some of the game’s other great (and openly gay) players, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. This perhaps explains Court’s relative lack of fame today, certainly in comparison with her male equivalent and the other great titan of Australian tennis, Rod Laver.

Margaret Court (née Smith) does not have a middle name, but if she did it really should be “tennis,” in keeping with her utter domination of the sport during her career. Indeed, her entry on the International Tennis Hall of Fame website begins with one word, “Dominating,” before going on to say that, “It can be debated… that no athlete–male or female–has so thoroughly dominated their sport like Court, certainly not in tennis.”

It was in her native Australia that Court was at her most dominant, first winning the Australian Championships (as it was then called, before the game went “Open” in 1968) when she was only 17. Astonishingly, she went on to win the next six Australian titles as well, and her winning run only came to an end because she got married in 1966 to Barry Court (a member of the illustrious Court family, two members of which have served as Premiers of the State of Western Australia) and temporarily retired from tennis. On her return to the game in 1968, she eventually succumbed in the Australian final to her new young challenger, Billie Jean King, in straight sets, before avenging that defeat the following year and then going on to win another hat-trick of titles. In total, between 1960 and 1973 Court won the Australian title 11 titles in total, which remains a record number of wins in one Major by one player, for both men and women.

However, it was not only in her native Australia that Court was successful. Because of its geographical remoteness from the rest of the world for much of the 20th century, Australian men and women had long dominated their own Major tournament, but in 1962 Court triumphed at the French and US Championships, before becoming the first Australian woman to win Wimbledon in 1963. Throughout the next decade, she went on to win nearly a quarter-century of singles titles at Majors. In addition to her 11 Australian triumphs, she won five times each at both the French and US Championships, with only a relatively paltry three Wimbledon singles titles making up her total of 24 singles Slam wins. And to emphasize her domination of the game, even after Billie Jean King had emerged as a serious contender to that dominance, she achieved the fabled calendar Grand Slam not once but twicein 1968 and 1970.

What is perhaps even more astonishing than Court’s singles success was the fact that she also triumphed in the other forms of the game–doubles and mixed doubles–winning a scarcely believable 19 women’s doubles Major titles (many of them with fellow countrywomen Robyn Ebbern and Lesley Turner Bowery) and an even more impressive 21 mixed doubles Major titles (many of them alongside fellow Aussie greats John Newcombe and Fred Stolle). Her final overall tally of Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles was a staggering 64, which is a record that will surely never be beaten. Indeed, no-one may ever get close to it, given that, from Bjorn Borg in the 1970s onwards, most of the top singles players–especially in the men’s game–have not played doubles at Grand Slam events, on the basis that playing both singles and doubles at the same event was considered to be too taxing. It was obviously not too taxing for Margaret the Great.

In addition to her impressive statistical achievements, there was one other way in which Court was virtually unique as a top player, and that was the fact that she had three children while she was still playing. In fact, she only quit tennis for good in 1977 when she found out during a tournament in America that she was pregnant with her fourth child.

What is perhaps most fascinating about Court, however, is the fact that, for all her amazing on-court achievements, today she is relatively little-celebrated by the game that she played so well, for so long, certainly in comparison with the great women players who eventually succeeded her at the top of the game, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, and who eventually surpassed her in the global fame stakes. That has less to do with Court’s startling tennis achievements than with the startling views that she has espoused since quitting tennis.

After retiring from the game, Court experienced what many great tennis players and indeed many great sportsmen and women have experienced, namely that nothing else really compares. As Jackie Robinson, the legendary American baseball player and destroyer of the “color barrier” in his sport, said, “Athletes die twice,” the first time being when they retire. Court certainly suffered, claiming that she experienced postnatal depression, health problems, and even acute insomnia as she tried to raise her four children, largely on her own as her husband pursued his own career. In an interview with Australia’s ABC News in 2016, she said, “They [the doctors treating her] said I’d be on medication for the rest of my life,” which must have been extremely difficult news for such an exceptional athlete to absorb.

Salvation for Court literally came in the form of the Bible classes that she began to attend in the early 1980s. Indeed, she took to evangelical Christianity as she had taken to the tennis court, quickly rising through the ranks to become a Pastor herself and eventually founding the Ministry named after her. In the process, however, Court found herself courting the controversy that she had almost totally avoided during her playing career, as she began to take an increasingly hard line–indeed, almost a fundamentalist line–on LGBT rights, which eventually brought her into conflict again with her former on-court rivals, King and Navratilova.

In particular, Court has opposed homosexuality and the move towards same-sex marriage in Australia, publicly proclaiming on many occasions that homosexuality is an “abomination to the Lord”! This hard-line attitude was inevitably controversial in an increasingly secular Australia, but all the more so given the crucial role that tennis had played in the gradual softening and ultimately the general rejection of such extreme views around the world. When King and Navratilova “came out” as gay, they were probably the most famous women in the world to do so, but because of their incredible ability not only as sportswomen but as spokeswomen for LGBT rights they played an enormously influential and certainly very public role in what has been the increasing acceptance of LGBT rights around the world.

Entirely typically, King and Navratilova have no more held back in opposing Court’s views off the court than they did when facing her on the court. Navratilova, in particular, launched a scathing attack on Court in an interview in 2012, saying, “Her myopic view is truly frightening as well as damaging to the thousands of children already living in same-gender families.”

Nevertheless, Court has stood by her beliefs, even going so far as to say that if she had become an evangelical Christian earlier in her life she might have won even more titles, especially more Wimbledon titles, as a tennis player. However, for all her conviction on this point, it is at least questionable whether she would have played with the same sheer single-mindedness as a player if she had been equally devoted to preaching and the promulgation of her beliefs.

It is because of those beliefs that Court is now the controversial Queen of Australian tennis. Her prowess as a player was such that in 2003 she eventually received the ultimate accolade of having a show court at her home Slam named after her. However, the “Margaret Court Arena” (the “Margaret Court Court” was obviously too much of a mouthful) has itself been the scene of protests against her and her views, with at least one Australian LGBT campaign group calling for it to be draped in “rainbow flags” and arguing that it should be renamed. In this way, the Margaret Court Arena is perhaps the perfect legacy for an all-time great tennis player who subsequently became one of the most controversial, to some even reviled, figures of her own time.

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