Silence on Margaret Court: Tennis swerves homophobia debate as champion is honored

Ahead of Rafael Nadal’s fourth-round match against Nick Kyrgios at the Australian Open in Melbourne, 24-time major winner Margaret Court was presented with a trophy in honor of the 50th anniversary of her historic 1970 Grand Slam.

The 77-year-old Australian was the first female player to achieve the feat in the Open era and she still holds the record for the number of Grand Slam singles titles with 24, achievements which led to the third-largest court at Melbourne Park being named after her in 2003.

The presentation however took place in the much larger Rod Laver Arena, capacity nearly 15,000, the biggest stage the Australian Open has to offer. Images from Court’s career, including that extraordinary year in 1970, were shown on the big screens, alongside footage of Court recalling her successes, while music and a light show rounded off the spectacle.

But that’s where the ceremonial grandeur stopped. Rod Laver himself handed over the trophy himself to his compatriot, who displayed it proudly to the crowd, but he didn’t seem keen on spending any more time on the blue acrylic court than absolutely necessary.

That’s because Court has become a controversial figure. After ending her career in 1977, she was ordained as a Pentecostal minister and has regularly spoken out against LGBT rights, homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Most recently in December 2019, she said transgender children were the “work of the devil” and decried that women’s tennis was “full of lesbians.”

“The devil has entered the media, politicians, teachers and television,” she continued. “He wants to control people and influence their minds.”

Rod Laver presents Margaret Court with a trophy commemorating the 50th anniversary of her 1970 calendar grand slam

As a result, there have been several calls to rename the arena which bears her name while Tennis Australia has stated that it “recognizes the tennis achievements of Margaret Court, although her views do not align with our values of equality, diversity and inclusion.” Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley has “made it clear to Margaret” that her viewed are not shared.

Yet neither ahead of the ceremony, nor on the day, was there any sign around Melbourne Park that anybody really wanted to approach the topic openly and critically. On the contrary, organizers, journalists, commentators and fans all appeared to be united by a certain indifference – even embarrassment – when asked about the issue. Silence on court, please, as the umpires say.

When approached by DW, some visitors didn’t even understand what was meant. “It’s all about the tennis,” was a common refrain, echoing the comments of Boris Becker, the Head of Men’s Tennis at the German Tennis Federation (DTB), who has spoken out against renaming the Margaret Court Arena.

“She became famous as a tennis player and won 24 slams,” said the legendary German player who also works as a pundit for broadcaster Eurosport. “What happens off the court shouldn’t play a role here. She should be celebrated and honored.”

Navratilova and McEnroe speak out

The question of whether the stadium should be renamed or not divides opinion in tennis, although it must be said that those who have spoken out on the topic in the past overwhelmingly do not share Court’s opinions.

The most prominent critic of Court and advocate of renaming the arena is 18-time Grand Slam champion Martina Navratilova, who herself came out as homosexual after becoming an American citizen in 1981. The Czech-born legend has in the past called for the court to be renamed after Evonne Goolagong, the four-time Australian Open singles champion of aboriginal descent.

“What Margaret doesn’t realize is that she is hurting people,” Navratilova said of Court. “She can believe what she wants but it’s not acceptable to harm others.”

John McEnroe, in typical fashion, has gone even further. The New Yorker, who won 77 singles and 78 doubles titles in an illustrious career, criticized Court in 2017 for “taking tennis back to the dark ages” and has once again made his feelings clear in a video blog.

As the self-appointed “Commissioner of Tennis,” McEnroe slammed Court as the “crazy old aunt” of tennis and begged Serena Williams, who currently has 23 grand slam single titles, to “get two more grand slams this year and get to 25, so we can leave Margaret Court and her offensive views in the past, where they both belong.”

McEnroe, who was as renowned for his unsporting and foul-mouthed outbursts on the tennis court as he was for his serve-and-volley, also praised Tennis Australia for organizing the so-called “Glam Slam”, an LGBTIQ tennis tournament which is now in its third year, adding that “Margaret would probably call it hell on earth.”

On Monday, McEnroe and Navratilova paraded a banner which the latter had painted in aboriginal style in her hotel room and which read: “Evonne Goolagong Arena.” In an interview with the BBC, Navratilova said she acted because she “felt the conversation had just stopped.”

Current players, such as Germany’s Angelige Kerber, have generally kept quiet on the issue

Business as usual

Current players have been far less forthcoming, focusing instead on their sport and dodging awkward questioning.

“It’s not a topic in the dressing room at all,” said German number one Angelique Kerber after her second-round victory over Australian qualifier Priscilla Horn. Judging by her look and tone of voice, she didn’t want to answer any further questions on the matter.

Meanwhile, not far from Craig Tiley’s office, hundreds of accredited journalists beaver away on the fourth floor of the federation’s headquarters. In the daily media briefings since the start of the tournament, the topic has not been mentioned once. For the reporters, it’s a side show.

“Big day for big Maggie,” said one Australian journalist to his colleagues on the afternoon of the ceremony. They seemed unsure of how to respond. “Are you writing about it?”

“No, it’s not a tennis topic.”

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