Tennis a divine calling for ‘anonymous’ champ
Margaret Court has much to commend her as a sporting heroine. A long career. Record-breaking success. A pioneer in women’s tennis in her pursuit of physical strength and aggressive style. A wholesome personal life. Resilience in overcoming troubling nervousness and in resisting administrative pettifogging.
Yet in the chronicling of our sporting triumphs, Court never seems to inspire a warmth of appreciation in proportion to her accomplishments. She participated in more Grand Slams than Rod Laver, won four times as many Grand Slam singles events as Evonne Goolagong. But somehow, as she says in her new autobiography, she is the ‘‘anonymous champion’’, and ‘‘casual fans could be excused for not even knowing that I exist’’.
A variety of explanations come to mind, including the context of Australian tennis success in her time, seemingly taken for granted, and the traditional discount at which women’s sport has traded. Most of her titles, too, were wrested overseas, beyond her countrymen’s immediate gaze, before sport’s mass broadcast and celebrity culture.
Then there are her antediluvian social views, including on homosexuality as an ‘‘abominable sexual practice’’, which she recently expressed displeasure at being asked about on the ABC, although this book airs them with a mix of defiance and chilly condescension. ‘‘It’s very sad for children to be exposed to homosexuality,’’ she writes. ‘‘Martina [Navratilova] is a nice person. Her life has just gone astray.’’
Which is a pity, for Court, born in 1942, did change the face of her sport. With her height, power and perfectionism, she was an athlete as well as a tennis player. The stories of her 1970 Grand Slam, especially her titanic Wimbledon final with Billie Jean King, are unimprovable. Other games she eschewed, and with a certain nobility: she was not avaricious; she declined to court the media; she disdained Tinling frills.
Yet how much more does she have to tell? This is Court’s third autobiography — there was The Margaret Smith Story (1965) in mid-career, Court on Court (1976) at career’s end — and much familiar ground is traversed, with slight variations.
Court now paints her upbringing, for example, in darker hues. ‘‘ My memories of hometown Albury are all pleasant ones,’’ is the serene opening to Court on Court. But in this new book outdoor pleasures balance claustrophobic interiors: her father was a hard, volatile drinker; her mother was a painfully devout Catholic, ‘‘scared of life to the point of paranoia’’, to whom ‘‘missing out on church was a mortal sin’’.
In this context tennis seems as much a refuge as a calling, although the fierceness of her embrace of the sport is never deeply explored, except as an expression of divine will: ‘‘ My only explanation is that God was watching over me, plotting the course of my life, and preparing me for a special task.’’
Court’s disdain for tennis’s petty officialdom remains vehement. She was scarred by the ‘‘ineptitude, arrogance, self-interest and spinelessness’’ of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia, especially 1961 women’s team manager Nell Hopman, who chaperoned players as though she was spending her own money, and ‘‘barked instructions at us like a prison guard’’.
Yet Court was not a reformer. She simply opted out for a period, taking advantage of her prominence by accepting an offer of financial support to tour privately. While it’s arguable the