Australians are more aware now, reminded of her accomplishments on the court by the attention generated by her beliefs off it. Court, 77, has drawn criticism for controversial views on same-sex marriage and transgender issues, with Martina Navratilova recently calling her comments on transgender women and children “pathetic” and saying she was “hiding behind her Bible.”
The controversy left Court saying that she hoped to keep tennis separate.
“I wish the press would stick to my tennis,” she told ABC Radio Perth. “I’ve had so many people touch me on the shoulder and say, ‘Thank you for being my voice.’ I haven’t had anyone say, ‘I hate you.’ I teach what the Bible says and get persecuted for it.”
Honoring her achievements presented a thorny problem for officials at the Australian Open, which began Monday in Melbourne, and it was a topic that was kryptonite to some players.
“It’s a tricky one,” Roger Federer told reporters. “I don’t know what to tell you. She’s obviously an incredible tennis champion, one of the most successful ever. I know this subject also tears apart a lot of opinions and minds. So I think Tennis Australia, they got to do what they got to do. I honestly really have no opinion on that.”
Others were more willing to talk about the matter.
“I think it’s unfortunate that this whole thing has even occurred,” Johanna Konta said, “because it does overshadow why her name is on the court. It’s not because of her beliefs; it’s because of her achievements in the sport. It’s unfortunate it’s kind of meshed together when they’re actually quite separate.”
Nick Kyrgios noted: “I guess you’ve got to take it just as how she was as a tennis player. That’s why the court was originally named after her: because of her tennis, what she was really good at. I guess that’s what I will do. I’ll try to block out the other stuff. Obviously I am okay with same-sex marriage.”
Tennis Australia never planned to ignore Court’s accomplishments, but it was vague about its plans to honor her on Jan. 27, the date on which she won the first major of her calendar Slam.
“We’ve said that we’re going to recognize Margaret. She’s one of the icons of sport in Australia, and she’s going to be recognized as such,” Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia and the tournament director, said recently. “We’ve spoken to her about what the activities are that we’re going to do, but some of them are a surprise as well.”
Court noted, “It’s not a lot, but it’s good what’s happening.”
However, she will not present the trophy to the women’s champion, as she has at times in the past. Although the country’s National Tennis Centre houses Margaret Court Arena, Tennis Australia made the awkward decision that someone else, as yet unidentified, will present the trophy, following the precedent set last year, during the 50th anniversary of Rod Laver’s calendar-year Grand Slam, when Ivan Lendl presented the trophy to Novak Djokovic.
Court, who won a women’s singles record 24 majors from 1960 to 1973, became only the second woman to win all four majors in a calendar year in 1970. Serena Williams’s bid to accomplish the same feat ended with her loss in a 2016 U.S. Open semifinal, and she needs one more major to tie Court’s overall haul of 24.
In her most recent controversial comments, Court, a Pentecostal minister at Perth’s Victory Life Centre, called trans women “problematic,” especially in sports competition, and said during a recent sermon that being gay is “a choice."
“Because we are living in a season … even that LGBT and the schools — it’s of the devil, it’s not of God … ” she said (via the Sydney Morning Herald). “And when children are making the decision at 7 or 8 years of age to change their sex … no, just read the first two chapters of Genesis; that’s all I say. Male and female.
“It’s so wrong at that age because a lot of things are planted in this thought realm at that age. And they start to question, ‘What am I?’ And if you are a Christian … you believe the word of God. This is our TV Guide to life. … And you know with that LGBT, they’ll wish they never put the T on the end of it because, particularly in women’s sports, they’re going to have so many problems. And you have got young people taking hormones and having changes, by the time they are 17 they are thinking, ‘Now I’m a boy and really I was a girl.’ Because, you know what? God’s made us that way.”
Navratilova called Court’s comments “pathetic in every way” on Twitter. “It’s outrageous and so wrong. We don’t need to change or rewrite history when it comes to anyone’s accomplishments, but we do not need to celebrate them,” Navratilova added. “Margaret Court is hiding behind her Bible as many have done before her and will do after her. Let’s not keep elevating it”
Tennis Australia responded by referring to its open letter from November in which it drew what it said was “an important distinction” between “recognizing champions and celebrating heroes.” It added: “Naturally, we will be recognizing Margaret and her incredible tennis record, and contrary to many reports, there is no plan to ‘rewrite history.’ However, the philosophy and culture of our sport goes deeper than winning and setting records. We seek to foster a sport that is inclusive and welcoming of everyone. We all bear some responsibility for creating a safe and inclusive society. As a sport, tennis is unwavering in playing our part.”
In video of her sermon, which was posted on Facebook, Court spoke of how difficult it is to talk about her views. “The devil gets in and the media and the political, the education, TV — he wants to control a nation so he can affect people’s minds and mouths. … I can go on television and if I say, ‘Well, this is what the Bible says,’ well, it’s like opening a can of worms.”
In 2017, Navratilova, who came out in 1981 and married Julia Lemigova in 2014, called Court a “racist and a homophobe” in an open letter to Margaret Court Arena after Court announced a boycott of Qantas Airways over its chief executive’s support for same-sex marriage. Navratilova urged that the name of the arena be changed, suggesting it be named for Australian Evonne Goolagong Cawley, winner of seven Grand Slam events.
“It is now clear exactly who Court is: an amazing tennis player, and a racist and a homophobe. Her vitriol is not just an opinion,” she wrote. “She is actively trying to keep LGBT people from getting equal rights (note to Court: we are human beings, too). She is demonizing trans kids and trans adults everywhere.”