A planned celebration of the 50th anniversary of Margaret Court’s calendar Grand Slam will undoubtedly lead to negative fallout for the 2020 edition of the Australian Open.
That will include something the tournaments generally goes to ardent lengths to avoid: negative press.
But Court is the most successful player in the country’s illustrious tennis history.
And however you measure the quality of some of the victories against lesser fields in Melbourne, her 24 major titles still stand as the most in all of tennis history – men or women.
So the Tennis Australia decision-makers found themselves in rather delicate spot.
Should they honor Court, as they did Rod Laver’s Slam-versary this year?
Or should they consider the strong anti-Court sentiment that is a direct consequence of her controversial religious beliefs, and take a stand for equality?
The decision they’ve made will outrage many.
No celebration, no Court visit
The national federation’s dilemma came to the forefront just three weeks ago when Court spoke to the media about the fact that Tennis Australia hadn’t yet contacted her about plans to commemorate the milestone anniversary.
Tennis Australia had done so this year for the 50th anniversary of beloved countryman Rod Laver’s Grand Slam.
Court has not visited the Australian Open since 2017. That year, as the Sydney Morning Herald put it, “her religious-based opposition to same-sex marriage became a flashpoint in the marriage equality campaign.”
But she wanted the same commemoration Laver received.
“I think Tennis Australia should sit and talk with me. They have never phoned me. Nobody has spoken to me directly about it. I think they would rather not confront it,” Court told the Morning Herald and The Age.
“They brought Rod in from America. If they think I’m just going to turn up, I don’t think that is right. I think I should be invited. I would hope they would pay my way to come like they paid for his, and honour me. If they are not going to do that, I don’t really want to come.”
Laver’s achievement was celebrated at all of the Grand Slams in 2019. And as you can see below, the US Open displayed some beautiful vintage prints to commemorate all four victories.
Full celebration planned
A few weeks after those stories appeared in the Aussie media, the decision has been announced.
What has been decided per a press release sent out on … a Saturday in Australia, is go fairly full out.
With the press release was an open letter, outlining the mindset behind the decision (and directly contradicting Court’s claim to the media that they had not been in touch – a claim, obviously, also belied by the fact that they sent a video crew to her home five months ago).
“As with other great sports in this country and elsewhere, it is common practice to draw a distinction between recognizing champions and celebrating heroes, and it is an important distinction,” says Tennis Australia.
Court and her family and friends have been invited to the 2020 Australian Open as special guests, and to “participate in a significant program of events throughout the tournament.
Here is Court’s official quote, per the press release.
“I’m looking forward to celebrating the 50th anniversary of winning the Grand Slam with my family and friends at the Australian Open, she said. “This is an incredible milestone for me, and I can’t quite believe how quickly the time has gone. It’s always wonderful to catch up with my fellow legends and I’m grateful to Tennis Australia.
“Tennis is a wonderful sport and I’m proud to be part of the history of our great game.”
Documentary, feature and other events
A mini-documentary will be released during the tournament, after a production team spent a day with court at home in Perth.
She will share memories of her time on tour, and reflections on her career.
There also will be a feature in the tournament’s official program, in-stadium entertainment that will flash back to 1970, and the annual Australian Open Legends Lunch.
Also on the schedule are “further events and opportunities, as is usual at the Australian Open, will be announced during the tournament,” per the press release.
“Tennis Australia does not agree”
At the bottom of the press release is a disclaimer, which goes like this:
“Tennis Australia respects Margaret’s unmatched tennis career and welcomes her to the Australian Open, particularly in this milestone anniversary year. As often stated, Tennis Australia does not agree with Margaret’s personal views, which have demeaned and hurt many in our community over a number of years. They do not align with our values of equality, diversity and inclusion.
“Our sport welcomes everyone, no matter what gender, ability, race, religion or sexuality, and we will continue to actively promote inclusion initiatives widely at all levels of the sport.”
Those are just words on a press release, though – easy to type but ultimately without meaning.
The tournament and Tennis Australia have tried to play it right down the middle.
Which is not to downplay how complicated the decision had to have been, or how much consultation and reflection went into it.
Arena still bears her name
Ongoing, with support from other tennis legends like Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, is a strong movement to have Court’s name removed from Margaret Court Arena.
MCA, rebuilt with a retractable roof for the 2017 edition, is the second ticketed show court at the tournament after Rod Laver Arena.
Court has not been hesitant to voice her views, based on her strong faith as the “spiritual leader” of a Pentecostal church called “Victory Life”, about homosexuality.
In 2017, she aired a series of abhorrent views opposing gay marriage. She claimed LGBT culture was brainwashing the youth of her country.
“That’s what Hitler did. That’s what communism did — get in the minds of the children. There’s a whole plot in our nation and in the nations of the world to get in the minds of the children,” she said.
“Tennis is full of lesbians, because even when I was playing there was only a couple there, but those couple that led, that took young ones into parties and things,” she said.
“And you know, what you get at the top is often what you’ll get right through that sport. We’re there to help them overcome. We’re not against the people.”
How will she be received?
Her opinions have been greeted with the anger and derision they deserve across the sport – from every quarter, crossing across gender and LGTBQ lines.
But there appears to have been no significant will expressed towards removing her name from MCA.
It is Tennis Australia’s decision – and it isn’t.
The federation doesn’t own the stadium; it leases it. And although it does control the naming rights, all of the investors in the sprawling Melbourne Park complex (the state government, and the trusts that manage it) appear to have to sign off.
As Court returns to the tournament for the first time in three years, the reaction to her public appearances will be … extremely interesting.
That reaction will determine whether Tennis Australia made the right decision.
The right decision for the tournament – not necessarily the right decision on principle.