The Australian Open is paying tribute to Margaret Court on the 50th anniversary of her calendar year grand slam. Events are running throughout the fortnight-long tournament celebrating the 1970 feat when Court won all four major titles (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open). The Grand Slam has only been achieved three times in women’s singles tennis.
Court is a guest of Tennis Australia for the duration of the competition and on Monday the 77-year-old is due to receive a presentation from Tennis Australia to commemorate her accomplishment. “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.
But the celebration is not straightforward for organisers. Court is an outspoken critic of same-sex marriage and in her role as a minister for the Victory Life Centre in her hometown of Perth she has frequently taken aim at the LGBTQ+ community.
Tennis Australia took the extraordinary measure of inserting the following disclaimer into their press release. “As often stated, Tennis Australia does not agree with Court’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.”
The Australian Open chief executive, Craig Tiley, clarified that position in a television interview early in the tournament. “First of all, we’ve said from the outset that we will recognise what Margaret accomplished back in 1970 when she won all four grand slams,” he said. “And there’s a difference between a recognition of that and a celebration of someone.
“Just to remind everyone that we are a sport that’s open for all, we are a sport that welcomes diversity, inclusivity and equality, and we’ve made that very clear to Margaret that that is our position. Her recognition is for her tennis achievements only.”
The situation is made more acute because of the sport’s long association with the LGBTQ+ community. Billie Jean King, the driving force behind the formation of the WTA, is in a same-sex relationship, while Martina Navratilova, the only tennis player to win grand slam titles in four different decades, is a prominent advocate for gay rights.
Navratilova in particular has challenged the polite deference to Court’s records, writing earlier this year: “We don’t need to change or rewrite history when it comes to anyone’s accomplishments but we do not need to celebrate them. Margaret Court is hiding behind her bible as many have done before her and will do after her. Let’s not keep elevating it.”
Unsurprisingly, active players have been more diplomatic; they are not renowned for engaging with controversial topics. “It’s a tricky one,” began Roger Federer when questioned, “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.”
Even the firebrand Nick Kyrgios chose his words carefully. “I guess you’ve got to take it just as how she was as a tennis player,” he said. “I’ll try to block out the other stuff. Obviously I am OK with same-sex marriage.”
It leaves Tennis Australia, and all involved in the commemoration, in an awkward situation whereby the achievements of an athlete are celebrated almost in abstraction from the athlete themselves.
“I wish the press would stick to my tennis,” Court told ABC Radio recently. “Margaret wants to have her cake and eat it too,” responded Navratilova on Twitter.