Badly served: should tennis be celebrating Margaret Court?

The Australian is a legend for her record on the court, but condemned by many – including Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe – for her views on LGBTQ+ rights

The aptly named Margaret Court has every right to be considered the greatest tennis player of all time. Her statistical record is unequalled: greatest number of grand slam singles titles (24); 40 grand slam doubles titles; dominant in both the amateur and professional eras in a career that stretched from 1959 to 1977. It is a phenomenal record and in 2003 one of the show courts at Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open, was renamed the Margaret Court Arena. In tennis terms the decision was absolutely the right one: Court, who is 77, is an Australian sporting icon. However, the renaming has been a source of controversy ever since.

The problem is Court’s life – and the views she has espoused – since leaving tennis. Brought up as a Catholic, in 1991 she was ordained as a Pentecostal minister and four years later founded her own church, the Victory Life Centre, in Perth. Deadpan on court, in expressing her views she has been anything but. Court has vigorously opposed same-sex marriage and criticised LGBTQ+ rights, complaining that tennis was “full of lesbians”. “I believe in marriage as a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible,” she said in a letter to Qantas, explaining why she would no longer be flying with an airline that supported same-sex marriage. She has said that LGBT culture is corrupting young minds and LGBT tendencies in young people are “all the devil”. In a radio interview, she said: “That’s what Hitler did. That’s what communism did – get in the minds of the children.” In 2013, after fellow tennis player Casey Dellacqua had a child with her partner Amanda Judd, Court wrote an open letter arguing that a same-sex family left their child “deprived of his father”.

Her views have led to widespread calls for the arena to be renamed. Billie Jean King, another great former champion and a campaigner for gay rights, has said she would not play in the arena if she was still on the tour. John McEnroe has called Court tennis’s “crazy aunt”. Meanwhile, her defenders argue the naming of the court reflects her tennis prowess, and that her views are irrelevant.

The battle has become very public this week, as the Australian Open reaches its climax. On Monday, Court was presented with a trophy marking the 50th anniversary of her annus mirabilis in 1970, when she achieved the rare feat of winning all four grand slams in the same calendar year. The following day, Martina Navratilova, a long-time critic of Court’s views, took to the umpire’s chair after playing a “Legends” match to berate her and, along with McEnroe, displayed a banner emblazoned with the words “Evonne Goolagong Arena”, in honour of the indigenous Australian who won seven grand slams.

They have since apologised for “breaking protocol”, but Navratilova reiterated her demand for the arena to be renamed. “You name buildings after not what people just did on the court but also off the court – the whole body of work,” she said. This is one contest that is definitely heading for a tie-break.


Stephen Moss

The GuardianTramp

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