Ten­nis a divine call­ing for ‘anony­mous’ champ

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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