There’s no dispute that Margaret Court is one of the greatest to have ever picked up a racket. Her results throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s stand for themselves: 24 Grand Slam singles titles. 19 Grand Slam doubles titles. 19 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles.
A legend of the game and a legend on court, yes. But in recent years, the Australian’s proven to be something else, as well — something less than celebratory.
For the next fortnight, the tennis world will descend upon Melbourne Park — where Court is immortalized in a stadium bearing her name. In an interview published on the BBC’s Sportsworld website on Friday, the Australian talked about Serena Williams’ chase for history and how she felt about the American potentially surpassing her record of 24 majors in singles.
“Sometimes, when I go over to Wimbledon or the Australian, I wonder “Did I really play the game?” – so that’s how far it is from you!”, Court said looking back at her career. (BBC Audio)
Nearly half a century removed from her time at the top of the game, it might be expected that Court views the sport she once dominated as completely foreign at present. After reading the rest of her words, however, one can’t help but wonder whether “it” might be just a little too far from the Australian these days.
Tennis in the 60s and early 70s tennis was a far cry from what it is today. Wooden rackets, a lack of physiotherapists and no medical timeouts provided big challenges to athletes back in the day and Court certainly isn’t in the wrong for pointing them out — but to say it is easier to win a Grand Slam in this day and age is, quite frankly, a baffling conclusion to draw.
“It’s not easy to win Grand Slams, it’s probably easier today than when we were playing, we had wooden rackets, we had to travel 10 months of the year, we played every week, we couldn’t take family with us, we couldn’t take any masseurs, we didn’t know any of that, we played with injuries.” (BBC)
As Court’s laundry list goes on, it becomes harder and harder to see what the actual differences are between this era and her own — other than that all the top players actually make the trip to the Australian Open.
Players still travel 10 months out of the year and many play every week — as they chase a fuzzy yellow ball and dream.
Many don’t take family with them — and most don’t even have the resources to even see this as an option.
Many play through injury, for many motivations — despite all the physiotherapists, masseurs and doctors at their availability.
As all players have stated over the course of the past 10 years — and to use a well-trodden phrase — the game has become so much more physical, as racket technology has advanced massively and the depth into the Top 100 on both tours has increased dramatically. Tennis as it is played in this day and age isn’t quite the same sport it was 50 years ago.
It doesn’t diminish the records Court or anyone else has achieved — but to say it was more difficult to win a Grand Slam back in the day is utter nonsense. Winning, let alone dominating, is always difficult on some level, and it’s the parameters and circumstances that change over time.
This isn’t the only time Court’s assessments felt a little bit “off,” though.
The headline of the piece — in all of its clickable glory — reads ‘Margaret Court: “Women’s tennis is a little boring”,’ with her reasoning explained in the subhead: ‘It’s “just hitting up and down all the time.”‘
Any hope that this quote is taken out of context is quickly squashed by the embedded audio clips.
The 73-year-old stated that she and Billie Jean King were much more “aggressive” in their day — conveniently ignoring that “aggression” is in the eye of the beholder — and bemoans the lack of players challenging Williams, with the “Arazenkas [sic — and yes, you heard that correctly, although the BBC took the liberty of transcribing it as Azarenka]” and “Sharapovas” being interchangeable who haven’t really improved all that much. Not only is she doing Williams a disservice, painting the past years as a “weak era” but she’s sweeping the entire rest of the field under the rug in one swift motion.
Court is certainly entitled to her opinions — as debatable as they might be — on the current state of the women’s game, but that doesn’t excuse the tired, old comparisons to the men’s game and the “very exciting tennis” the ATP Tour’s “Big 4” produce.
Is the men’s game currently “very exciting” with one player almost dominating at will?
Again, it depends on who you ask.
Is the WTA lacking women knocking on the door?
You’re probably not looking hard enough.
Is the women’s game nothing but “hitting up and down the line”? Does it lack the “artistry of volleying”?
And last but not least — is it ever necessary to juxtapose WTA and ATP in order to determine the quality of either tour?
Court later goes on to laud Lleyton Hewitt for his career and how he works with young players, but worries about the “sad” state of women’s tennis Down Under. Australia might not exactly be bursting at the seams with teenagers poised to make breakthrough runs on the WTA, however, they still have a rising Daria Gavrilova now officially under the flag, an active Grand Slam champion in Sam Stosur, and one of the world’s best doubles players in Casey Dellacqua (currently out with a concussion, but happily expecting another baby with her partner Amanda Judd). Both of these veterans have achieved more in tennis than most of their male compatriots in the past 10 years, even if Australian men’s tennis is in a (turbulent) upswing right now.
Tennis should respect the legends of the game and their achievements, and all things considered, it does just that pretty well when its greatest names are enshrined on the sport’s biggest stages and stadiums. Just because she’s a legend of the game, however, the Australian’s out-of-touch opinions shouldn’t be getting a pass.
Tennis isn’t the same as it was in 1969, but even then, men’s and women’s tennis were different entities. It’s time people stopped comparing things that shouldn’t be compared and instead, respect what they all bring to the table. It isn’t the first time the Court has uttered head-scratchers, and it probably won’t be the last. Unfortunately, embracing differences has never been her strongest asset.