Martina Navratilova was cut off in mid-sentence when she climbed into an empty umpire’s chair on an outside court here on Tuesday to push for Margaret Court Arena to be renamed in honour of Evonne Goolagong Cawley.
“I’ve been speaking out about an issue for a while now,” the former world No 1 said of her criticism of Court’s homophobia, “and John McEnroe is here to join me and push the conversation forward…”
At that point, the umpire’s microphone went dead. Her statement lasted about 10 seconds before the still-camera feed that covers each of the minor courts ended. With the players who had been taking part in exhibition match on the small 1573 Arena – the Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova, the Australian Nicole Bradke and the American ESPN commentator and former player Mary Joe Fernández – having left, Navratilova and McEnroe then held up a banner reading “Evonne Goolagong Arena”.
While there is no evidence Navratilova was deliberately censored, she and McEnroe both made strong statements criticising Court’s controversial views on gender and race before the 77-year-old Australian was presented with a replica of the winner’s trophy on Rod Laver Arena on Monday to mark the 50th anniversary of her calendar grand slam of the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open. Later the organisers in Melbourne hit back with a strong statement criticising the pair.
In a bylined article posted on the Tennis.com website on Monday, Navratilova, the winner of 18 grand slam singles titles, gave full voice to her views. “When airports, buildings, streets or stadiums are named after particular people, it is done, or at least should be done, to [honour] exceptional human beings – our heroes,” she wrote.
“Think Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Billie Jean King, Rod Laver, Rosa Parks. Would it not be appropriate if the Staples Center [in Los Angeles] were renamed as a tribute to Kobe Bryant?
“Such luminaries excelled in their fields and transcended them; they made a positive contribution to mankind; they led by example. And, perhaps most of all, they were on the right side of history.
“But Margaret Court does not belong in that company or category. Nobody disputes her achievements on the tennis court, and her place in the sport’s history remains as distinguished as it gets. Nobody wants to take away or diminish her career, least of all me. Margaret, Billie Jean [King] and Rod [Laver] were my childhood heroes. I wanted to be like them. So, it pains me to say this, but Margaret Court Arena must be renamed.
“As a worthy replacement, my vote goes to Evonne Goolagong. Evonne is the embodiment of what a role model or hero truly is. Her heritage, her success against the odds, her Hall of Fame career and her exemplary life off court, in which she has given so much of herself to so many causes, are all attributes we can celebrate wholeheartedly.
“In our tennis ‘family’, we celebrate the good values of our sport and we love how democratic and inclusive it has become, the way it has driven out prejudice and unfair exclusion.
“Yes, we have free speech in a democracy, but that doesn’t mean that free speech doesn’t have consequences. When Margaret goes out of her way to single out a group of people and tell them they don’t deserve equal rights, that they are less than good parents, that they are not godly, that’s not merely free speech. It’s hateful and hurtful speech and it’s injurious to countless vulnerable people.
“Why not pick someone whom every child can look up to and want to emulate – a champion who inspires and motivates young and old to do their best and be their best every day? For me, that person is Evonne Goolagong. Evonne Goolagong Arena. Perfect.”
Goolagong Cawley, an Indigenous Australian, won seven grand slam singles titles – four Australian Opens, two Wimbledons and the French Open – between 1971 and 1980.
McEnroe was equally scathing in his comments on Monday. He urged his compatriot, Serena Williams – who lost in the second round here – to continue her quest to match and overtake Court’s all-time record of 24 majors, “so we can leave Margaret Court and her offensive views in the past, where they both belong”. Williams, still playing at 38, has won 23 majors, all since the professional era – the so-called “open era’” – began.
McEnroe added: “There’s only one thing longer than the list of Margaret Court’s tennis achievements: it’s her list of offensive and homophobic statements. Just a few examples. During the apartheid regime in South Africa, she said: ‘I love South Africa. They have the racial situation better organised than anyone else.’ What? About transgender children and LGBTIQ: ‘It’s all the work of the devil … tennis is full of lesbians … it is sad for children to be exposed to homosexuality.’”
In their statement, the tournament organisers admonished Navratilova and McEnroe. “We embrace diversity, inclusion and the right for people to have a view, as well as their right to voice that view,” the statement said. “But the Australian Open has regulations and protocols with respect to how any fan, player or guest can use our facility, the event and the global stage it provides. This is to ensure the integrity of our event.
“Two high-profile guests have breached these protocols and we are working through this with them.”
This is a long-running issue that has embarrassed Tennis Australia. The ceremony in Court’s honour before Rafael Nadal’s dramatic win against Nick Kyrgios was short and understated, with polite applause that died before she had left the court.