Former champions Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe said they had no idea that they violated Australian Open rules after launching a public protest against Margaret Court on Tuesday.
It's just unfortunate because I think what Margaret Court doesn't realise is how many people she hurts with her rhetoric. She can believe whatever she wants, but she's actually hurting people, and that's not OK. Martina Navratilova
The tennis icons, who have won 25 Grand Slam singles trophies between them, made headlines following their legends doubles match on the Margaret Court Arena.
Navratilova climbed into the umpire’s chair to address the crowd before getting her microphone cut off.
The protests evolved around calls to removes Court’s name from one of the premier arena’s at Melbourne Park due to her controversial views.
“I’ve been speaking out about an issue for a while now and John McEnroe is here to join me and push the conversation forward…’ she said before getting cut off.
Following Navratilova’s action, she and McEnroe then held a banner which read ‘Evonne Goolagong Arena’, the name of the player they think should replace that of Court, and a former World No 1 and 7-time major winner.
Goolagong contested every final of the Australian Open held between 1971-1976.
Tennis Australia marked the 50th anniversary of Court’s Grand Slam on Monday in a somewhat low-key event.
Court was present at the on-court ceremony, which marked 50 years since her calendar-year Grand Slam in 1970, but didn’t address the crowd.
It was a tricky event for organisers, trying to balance recognition of the achievement with their responsibility to promote inclusion in sports.
The 77-year-old Court’s criticism of homosexuality has been condemned by current and former players, and prompted some to call for her name to be removed from one of the Australian Open’s main arenas.
“It’s just unfortunate because I think what Margaret Court doesn’t realise is how many people she hurts with her rhetoric,” said Navratilova before the ceremony, who won 18 major titles and has been a vocal critic of Court’s anti-gay comments.
“She can believe whatever she wants, but she’s actually hurting people and that’s not OK.”
Court received a trophy from Rod Laver, who last year celebrated the 50th anniversary of his second Grand Slam, ahead of the night match between Nick Kyrgios and top-ranked Rafael Nadal.
A video tribute was also played on the big screens but the somewhat sparse crowd gave her a mixed reaction, with some fans seen with rainbow flags, the symbol of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community.
Court won an all-time record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, including 13 before the Open era, a record that Serena Williams has been chasing, having won 23.
A minister at a Pentecostal church in Perth, Western Australia, since 1990, Court has made many of her controversial comments in that role.
McEnroe criticised organisers for going ahead with the ceremony, describing the former player on Eurosport as Tennis Australia’s ‘crazy aunt’.
“There’s only one thing longer than a list of Margaret Court’s tennis achievements — it’s her list of offensive and homophobic statements,” McEnroe said. “You can’t separate the person from her achievements.”
Jelena Dokic, who had a career-high No 4 ranking and reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2000, said it was challenging for AO organisers to balance the sporting achievement from the individual.
“It’s hard to go past her winning 24 Grand Slams, as an athlete, which is incredible,” Dokic told The Associated Press. “I absolutely do not agree or support anything [she] has said.
“It’s extremely discriminatory and very hurtful. It’s very hard to go past.
“Everyone has extended the olive branch to Court, the rest is up to her,” Dokic added.
“Sport is a place where we should give everyone a chance, it’s about everyone coming together — it’s all about inclusion and giving everyone a chance.”
The Christian Pastor came under fire after a series of controversial remarks she made, especially against the LGBTI community.
She once said that the women’s tour was ‘full of lesbians‘ and, during her playing career, described Navratilova as a ‘bad role model’ due to her sexuality.
In other incidents she boycotted Qantas airlines due to their support of marriage equality, publicly criticised former player Casey Dellacqua for having a baby with her same-sex partner, and claimed gender-fluid people are the ‘work of the devil’.
In a statement published before the tournament, organisers said that Court’s views do not reflect that of their own.
“We respect Margaret’s unmatched tennis career and welcome her to the Australian Open, particularly in this milestone anniversary year,” organisers wrote ahead of the championships.
“As often stated, Tennis Australia does not agree with Margaret’s personal views, which have demeaned and hurt many in our community over a number of years.”
Court remains un-apologetic, saying: “I’ve had so many people touch me on the shoulder and say ‘thank you for being my voice’.
“I haven’t had anyone say ‘I hate you’.
“I teach what the Bible says and get persecuted for it.”
Navratilova’s and McEnroe’s recent actions landed them in hot water, with Tennis Australia saying that both of them ‘broke protocol’ at the tournament.
They are unlikely to face any further penalty, however, as both have since apologised.
“I had no idea there was this kind of protocol. Had I known I would have done it differently,” Navratilova told The Tennis Channel in the USA.
“But I would still have tried and made my statement, which is basically you name buildings after not what people just did on the court but also off the court, the whole body of work.”
McEnroe, who is one of the on-court interviewers at this year’s tournament, has also issued a statement of apology.
“Admittedly I was never one to study the rule book carefully or, for that matter, even at times abide by the rules.
“For that I apologise to Tennis Australia and recognise and appreciate the great job they have done to make the Australian Open a great event for the fans, players and myself.”
Despite the apology, neither Navratilova or McEnroe are backing down in their argument to rename the Margaret Court Arena and Tennis Australia is yet to indicate that they will even consider such a motion.
Germany’s Steffi Graf and American Maureen Connolly are the only other women to have won all of the Grand Slams in the same year.
Court revealed in an interview that she rates Graf as the best women’s player she has ever seen.
Speaking to the media last week, she said: “They’re all great champions, but I always thought Steffi was the best.
“She was my favourite. She won the Grand Slam in 1988 [Australian, French, Wimbledon and US Open] and I always loved watching her because of her athleticism and style.
“She was one of the best athletes I had seen.”
Graf won 22 Grand Slam singles titles in her career, but was the only player to ever win all the 4 Grand Slams and the Olympic gold medal in the same year.
Court rated Serena Williams, who has 23 Grand Slams and was attempting to tie Court’s record of 24 Slams, at No 2, followed by Billie Jean King at No 3, Martina Navratilova at 4, Chris Evert 5, Monica Seles 6, Evonne Goolagong Cawley 7, Maria Bueno 8, Justine Henin 9 and Venus Williams at No 10.
“And then Serena, of course,” Court continued. “Her record speaks for itself and her serve is incredible.
“She has got a wonderful serve and it’s different to Billie Jean’s. Billie Jean placed [it] very well. She didn’t have a lot of power, but she was a great volleyer.
“Like Serena, Billie Jean had a lot of young players beaten before they went on court.
“Serena does that to her opponents, too. Serena has more power, but Billie had incredible control and the ability to move players around. She was a great competitor.”
Court added that she loved Navratilova and Evert’s distinct styles, while Bueno and Goolagong Cawley were among the most beautiful players she had seen, and she was impressed with the endurance of Venus Williams, Seles and Henin.
That the controversy surrounding Court these days will continue to rumble on is clear.