Margaret Court: Courting controversy
WELL, HERE we are tennis fans, at the Westside Club in Queens, New York on this special day in 1970 and Margaret Court of Perth, Australia is serving for the match.
Not just for the match, though. Not just for her fourth US Open to go with her nine Australian Opens, her four French Opens and her three Wimbledons. Oh no. This is for the Grand Slam. All four in one year, that's the prize at her fingertips now. Only ever been done once before, by Little Mo Connolly in 1953. They said then that it would never be done again, but here it is, just one game away.
Big serve from Margaret Court and Rosie Casals' return is long; 15-love. Three points from immortality now for the woman they call The Arm.
No trace of emotion on her face, no sign of nervousness or happiness. She collects a ball, hops it on her racket and closes her eyes, just for a second. "I know you're with me, Lord," she whispers.
Casals comes to the net and up goes the lob from Court and that's just too good; 30-0. Oh, history is close at hand now, ladies and gentlemen.
She wants this over now. She wants it done and out of the way. She doesn't want the pressure anymore; all the questions from the media, all the expectation. They know nothing of her inner doubt, nothing of the complex ways of her mind, nothing of the frustration at having left tournaments behind her in the past because of the demons. Fred Perry knew. He understood. He used to say, "It's all in the head with you, Margaret, isn't it?" and she'd say, "How right you are, Fred". Or she'd think it.
Another powerful serve from the Australian and Rosie Casals can't do anything about it and now here it is, the moment she's been waiting for her whole life; 40-love and match point. Billie Jean King joins us in commentary. What do you think, Billie Jean? Well, I think this is phenomenal. Margaret is unstoppable. She's going to take this point and the match and the championship and today is going to be remembered as a famous day in women's tennis forever more.
Court finishes the job. The Grand Slam is hers. She jogs to the net to meet Casals. She doesn't hop or skip or punch the air. She's not even smiling, not really. Her beaten opponent looks happier. She's not feeling pride or joy. She's saying, "Praise God, it's over. Thank you, Lord". Even now, 40 years on, she remembers her emotions as relief and nothing more.
It was a different world back then. Look at the tape of that Grand Slam final and the scoreboard alone – a manual affair operated by a dude in a yellow tee-shirt – tells of another time. When she was starting out in the majors there were no seats for the players between games. They just stood at the side of the court and towelled themselves down. When seats came in, they felt weird. There was no medical support on court either, naturally. She remembers Wimbledon in 1970. In the quarter-final she damaged the ligaments in her ankle and suffered through a semi-final win over Casals without much treatment. In the final she faced Billie Jean and they gave her an injection to numb the pain. The relief would last two and a half hours, the doctor told her. After that, she was on her own.
The final that year was an epic. In an era before tie-breaks, Court took the first set 14-12 and was 10-9 up in the second when the two and a half hour mark was reached. "I knew for sure that if it went to a third set I'd have lost that final. Guaranteed. As it happened, I won the next game and that was it. The Grand Slam very nearly ended there and then, though."
This week, she'll be in Melbourne at the Open championship she ended up winning 11 times, saluted in the court that bears her name and presented with an award that marks the Grand Slam four decades after it was achieved. She's had a few of these ceremonies in her life. After all, there are always people keen to honour you when you've won 62 major titles – 24 singles, 19 women's doubles and 19 mixed doubles. No other woman has ever won that many. No other woman ever will.
She's going back to Melbourne from her home in Perth, but she's a very different person. God was always a part of who she was as a tennis player, even as a kid, but it's different now. When she was showing promise as a young teenager and the press asked her where she got from her ability from, she'd tell them straight: "My mum says I got it from the Lord."
But she calls what she had back then a child-like faith compared to what she has now and what she's had since the early to mid-1970s. "I gave my heart to Jesus Christ," she says. These days she is Reverend Margaret, founder of the Victory Life Centre, a Pentecostal church in Perth, where she is head pastor.
This is how it happened. A few years after Court did the Grand Slam she came to realise that not everything was right in her world. Sure, she had fame and wealth, she was No.1 in the world and was happily married, but still she felt there was something missing. A friend gave her some religious books and she threw them in the bin, except one. She started reading this thing about making Jesus Christ the ruler of her life and was almost lifted out of her seat. She went to a Bible meeting and instantly knew these people around her had something she didn't have. The minister asked if anybody wanted to give their heart to Christ and she raised her hand. Everything changed from that point.
"I battled within myself for most of my career. I came from a family that had nothing. My first tennis racket was made from the palings of an old wooden fence across the road from where I lived. Our home was a little house, but we didn't own it. We didn't have a car or a television and as a kid there was alcohol in the home, with my dad, and there'd be arguments and my escape was to be outdoors. But I was very shy. I had an inferiority complex. At 15, I was showing a lot of promise and I was supposed to go to a coach in Sydney but he wouldn't take me. He said I was too scrawny and that I'd never amount to anything. I went to Melbourne instead and my coaches really believed in me there. They believed in me more than I believed in myself. They got me through a lot of things. I should have won a lot more. I beat myself at different times.
"This is the truth. If I'd known then what I know now I'd have won six Wimbledons instead of three. I'd have won a lot more tournaments. There is so much in the scriptures about the mind. You hear a lot about mental strength in sport. The mind is a battlefield in life whether you're a sports person or a man in the street. It's the gateway down into the heart of man. I wish I'd known it when I was playing instead of thinking about guilt and unworthiness and condemnation. If you change the inside you'll change the outside."
Court's greatest foe in tennis was Billie Jean. They met 32 times in Grand Slams and Court won 22 of them but the rivalry was more complicated than any of us could have imagined. In the early days, the Australian remembers the American sitting in the changing rooms at tournaments immersed in the Bible. Years later, the word came through that King had had an abortion because she didn't want to bring a child into the world while part of a marriage that she felt was not strong enough to last the course.
It wasn't until the early 1980s that King came out as a lesbian. By then, Court's views on homosexuality were clearly formed in her head. Controversial to say the least, she didn't look kindly on the life her old rival was leading. "In the scriptures it does say that homosexuality is a sin of the flesh and it is something we can change," she says. "I remember a mother telling me that her son was fine until somebody told him, 'I think you're gay'. He took that thought and he started to think on it so much that he believed that's what he was. There will be some reason that they are the way they are. But God made Adam and Eve and male and female to multiply the earth."
Court has said in the past that homosexuality is an "abomination to the Lord". She has no regrets about saying that, even if it means that people who admire her achievements in the tennis world turn away from her because of her beliefs in the real world.
People have asked her if she thinks that Billie Jean and Martina Navratilova – the only woman to achieve a Grand Slam since Court – are lesser people because they're gay. "No, no, I don't think less of them," she says. "But my view is that it's a lifestyle they've chosen which they didn't have to. And I'll say this, if I had a child playing tennis today I wouldn't let that child go on her own on the circuit because I think there is a wrong spirit (on the women's tour]. Young people can get snared into that world. People go into homosexuality thinking they're like that and they're actually not. I'd want to keep them on the straight and narrow."
That's the Reverend Margaret talking. She knows that stuff is controversial. Probably knows it's shocking to many. But it's what she believes and what she believes has helped her through the past 40 years. Helped not just her, in fairness, but the people she serves. Different kind of serve these days, of course. Now it's all about feeding the poor of Perth, which her church does in a prodigious way, and about delivering the Lord's word as cleanly as she did her forehand in her pomp.
Forty years on, Melbourne will acclaim Margaret Court this week. The irony is that, as a person, she is more fulfilled now in the shadows as she ever was when in the full glare of the spotlight. She'll take the award they give her, but come Sunday she'll back on the only centre court that matters to her; the altar.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 21 May 2013
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 3 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: West