Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe, for once, had nothing of substance to apologise for. Nevertheless, two of the most outspoken voices in tennis, went through the motions here on Wednesday to soothe the ego of Margaret Court, Australia’s finest ever woman player, who is also a homophobe of no regrets and holds views that went out of fashion in the 19th century, as well as the sensitivities of Craig Tiley, whose normally excellent stewardship of the Australian Open has looked more like the captain of the Hesperus ignoring an advancing storm that his drunken first mate could see coming.
Court probably did not have to lean on Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia and the tournament director of the Australian Open, to demand that Navratilova and McEnroe apologise for suggesting that her eponymous stadium be renamed after Evonne Goolagong Cawley. He sniffed the mounting embarrassment for himself.
After Navratilova used the still-live microphone on an empty umpire’s chair on an outside court on Tuesday to signal her and McEnroe’s objections, Tennis Australia went into the sort of damage limitation familiar to politicians who – let’s say – are out of the country on holidays when they should be at their post dealing with a national emergency. A statement concluded: “Two high-profile guests have breached these protocols and we are working through this with them.”
It sounded like a couple of jail escapees had been recaptured and were undergoing re-education chained to a wall in a dungeon under the supervision of Nurse Ratched.
It was easy to feel some sympathy for TA. No sooner had the choking air from surrounding bushfires eased to manageable proportions than Tiley and his team were lumbered with a moral dilemma that, to be fair to them, was not of their making. It was Court, invited over from Perth to be recognised with a replica trophy on the 50th anniversary of her calendar grand slam, who would not let it lie.
Court demanded recognition for her tennis – rightly so – and now TA had to seek an apology from two former players who disagreed strongly with her non-tennis views but who, fortuitously, had given the headmaster a way to punish them, because they had infringed “safety protocols”.
There are probably more safety protocols in Australia than exist in a humidicrib. Navratilova’s hijacking of a microphone was obviously a very dangerous transgression indeed.
Anyway, she said sorry. Sort of. Talking on the Tennis Channel (rather than risking further opprobrium by snatching another microphone), she said, “I got in trouble. I am sorry. I broke protocol. I had no idea there was this kind of protocol.”
McEnroe, whose part in this life-threatening villainy was to hold up a banner that bore the anarchic words, “Evonne Goolagong Arena”, danced a similarly silly tango.
“Admittedly, I was never one to study the rule book carefully or, for that matter, even at times abide by the rules,” he said in a statement, stopping only to throw in a joke against himself.
He added, “For that I apologise to Tennis Australia and recognise and appreciate the great job they have done to make the Australian Open a great event for the fans, players and myself.” He might have added, “And will you now please take that gun out of my back.”
No shots were fired. No blood was spilt. The Hesperus did not crash on the rocks. Yet, the Margaret Court saga will rumble on. Because, it seems, she will never apologise.