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Steve Flink: Margaret Smith Court Career Retrospective

1/15/2012 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Some champions wear success more comfortably than others, value humility above all other qualities and know that winning prolifically speaks for itself. They understand that graciousness is a prerequisite for those who want to be appreciated not simply for recording enduring triumphs but more so for the way they have conducted themselves on the field of battle, under the harsh light of fierce competition, in the heart of the arena. They realize that ultimately the wisest observers will judge them on their style as well as their substance, on winning and losing with equanimity, on their character.

Enter Margaret Smith Court, the greatest woman player ever to emerge from Australia. This stately competitor accomplished on the loftiest possible scale from the outset of the 1960’s into the mid-1970’s, from her late teens into her thirties, from the lawns of her native land to the red clay of Roland Garros to the game’s twin towers at Wimbledon and Forest Hills. She has captured more Grand Slam Championships than any player—male or female—in the sport’s history,  taking eleven Australian Championships, securing five titles at Roland Garros, winning Wimbledon thrice, ruling at Forest Hills on five occasions.

She collected those 24 majors in a brilliant span from 1960-1973, reaching her competitive zenith in 1970 when she established herself as only the second woman ever to sweep all four majors for a Grand Slam. Moreover, she collected three of the four major singles titles three other times—in 1965, 1969 and 1973. She amassed a record total of 62 major titles, taking 19 in women’s doubles, and 19 more in mixed doubles, including a Grand Slam alongside Ken Fletcher in 1963. At the Australian Championships in 1963 and at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open seven years later, Court took “the triple” and was victorious in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.

Through it all, she was an exemplary sportswoman, a player who never resorted to gamesmanship, a champion who won with honor; it was as simple as that. Court, 69, was unfailingly dignified, deeply driven but always under emotional control, an athlete of integrity who believed ceaselessly in fair play. She competed with quiet ferocity, imposing her will steadily, gaining a stature few female athletes of her era would ever attain. As the first major of 2012 unfolds this week in Melbourne, we would all do well to reflect on Court’s prodigious career. I checked in with her last week by phone, and in a pair of conversations we covered a lot of territory.

As the interview commenced, I asked Court if she feels her voluminous record has been somehow obscured by the passage of time, by the vast sweep of history. Has she been undervalued in some ways by a younger generation who never saw her play?

She replied candidly, “My life is so different today and so full in other areas. If I was involved in the tennis area like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova are now, I would probably get a lot of publicity. I don’t think the younger people today really know what I have done. Personally it doesn’t affect me. It is probably a bit sad for the history of the game. But I am not upset about it.”

In her Grand Slam season of 1970, she was nearly invincible all year long, winning 21 of 27 tournaments and 104 of 110 matches. As she opened her Grand Slam campaign in Sydney at the Australian Championships, she conceded only 13 games in six matches to take the tournament with outright assurance. But she nearly fell in the second round at Roland Garros, recouping from a set down to oust the tenacious Olga Morozova, a Russian who would reach the finals of the French Open and Wimbledon four years later. Court survived in that tense encounter 3-6, 8-6, 6-1 but moved through the rest of the tournament relatively easily, and then dropped only one set on her way to the final of Wimbledon, storming back to defeat Germany’s elegant Helga Masthoff Niessen 6-8, 6-0, 6-0 in the quarterfinals.

In the final on the renowned Centre Court at the All England Club, Court held back her estimable rival Billie Jean King in an epic duel between two women who were both wounded combatants. King was not far away from a knee surgery that would keep her out of the U.S. Open later that summer, while Court needed an injection for a severely damaged ankle. Under the circumstances, physically compromised yet unwavering as competitors, both women played an astounding match. Court was victorious 14-12, 11-9 in two hours and 27 minutes.

She knew how critical it was that she prevailed in straight sets. As she reflects now, Court says, “The doctor told me before the match that he was going to put an injection in my ankle, but said that it would only last two-and-a-half hours. I knew if the match went to a third set, I was a goner. It was an electrifying match that people talked about for many years after. I think that was how it always was between Billie Jean and myself. We had great respect for one another and we always knew we would have quite a battle whenever we played. But I had a lot more wins over her in my career [the head-to-head record stood at 22-10 for Court] than she did over me. I believe it was probably my athletic ability that made the difference and my fitness as well. I know I was one of the fittest players in the world. That Wimbledon final was a great tennis match.”

On she went to Forest Hills for the U.S. Open, and Court swept into the final at the cost of only 13 games in five matches. She confronted the Californian Rosie Casals in the championship match and, knowing full well what was at stake, Court was understandably apprehensive. She dropped the second set, but came through 6-2, 2-6, 6-1 in the end to realize her career mission of a Grand Slam. Was she more exhilarated or relieved?

“I felt relief,” she answers. “Just relief. I had only a few big goals in my career. One was to become the first Australian woman to win the singles at Wimbledon, and I had done that in 1963. And the second was when someone said after I came back from retirement in the late 1960’s that I had come so close to winning a Grand Slam before, so why not try to do that? That idea dropped into my heart. I felt I could do it because I had beaten all of the leading players, and I had been No. 1 in the world many years. But when you win the Grand Slam as I did in 1970, you sort of thank God it is over and then you wonder if you can really play with that motivation anymore.”

But play on she did. Margaret had married Barry Court in 1967. After giving birth to their first child, she returned to the game in 1972 and quickly regained her bearings. The following year, she performed perhaps at a loftier technical level than ever before, even more convincingly than she had in 1970. Court was a player who was best known for her serve-and-volley style, and she excelled in the forecourt. King among others called her “The Arm” because her reach at the net was so immense.  But she had the whole package, probing effectively from the back of the court, slicing her backhand meticulously and keeping the ball low with a lot of bite off that side, turning her once vulnerable forehand into a much more stable shot. Court could not have come through five times on the red clay in Paris without having the capacity to stay with the best of the baseliners in long exchanges. One of her greatest triumphs at a major was a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-4 win over 18-year-old Chris Evert—the best clay court player of all time—in the final of the 1973 French Open.

In fact, Court’s only loss that in 1973 at a major was to Evert in the semifinals of Wimbledon; at the other three Grand Slam events she was unstoppable. She won 18 tournaments in 1973, and 102 of 108 matches. But, sadly, too many of the sport’s closest followers more vividly recollect her loss to Bobby Riggs on Mother’s Day that year. Court was largely unprepared for the fanfare of that exhibition. The masterful showman Riggs, 55, presented the Australian with roses before the match in California, and she never could shake free from her nerves, bowing 6-2, 6-1. That unexpected setback for Court made it a necessity for King to face the chauvinistic Riggs on September 20, 1973 in Houston. King fully understood the significance that a win for her would bring to the women’s game. She took Riggs apart 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

But Court was simply caught off guard by the show business side of her appointment with Riggs. As she told me, “It was probably a mistake. I am glad Billie Jean went on to beat him. If I had played World Team Tennis with all of the razzmatazz and all of the noise and the bands—which I did do a year or two after that— I  probably would have known how to handle my match with Bobby Riggs.  It was a shock to my system at the time. The game has changed today but back then it was a whole different ballgame. I just didn’t know how to cope with it all. It was very, very uncomfortable for me but I don’t make any excuses about it.”

That unfortunate experience she had dealing with the hoopla surrounding her match with Riggs was not what defined Margaret Court in a lasting way. She was a great player with the discipline, willpower, completeness of game and the unswerving commitment to keep showing up whenever it counted in the biggest matches at the most significant events. In 29 final round singles appearances at the Grand Slam events, Court suffered only five losses. Those numbers demonstrate that she was an excellent big match player. But I have long believed that she would have been hard pressed to win eleven Australian Championships/Opens if the fields there had not been weaker than they were at the other majors, particularly at Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships/ Open.

I brought this point up to Court, and asked her if perhaps her record was inflated by not meeting her foremost rivals more often in the latter stages of her native championships. She was clearly not in accord with me. She responds, “Back in the early years of the tournament for me, there were always Maria Bueno or Christine Truman and the top South Africans. And then we had Billie Jean King coming in there some years. There might have been a few years where we didn’t have the No. 1 and 2 players in the field but there weren’t many years like that. We would have four or five of the top ten players in the world when I played. I was proud of those victories. Sometimes the top players would lose before the finals. That happened to Billie Jean. She lost in the quarters a few years. Remember that the first year I won the Australian Open, Maria Bueno lost in the quarters when she was No. 1 in the world.”

Court’s pride in winning that many times in her country’s championship is admirable. But the fact remains that through a combination of good draws and fields that were not all that stellar, she won considerably more times “Down Under” than at any of the other majors. Consider some fundamental facts:  she beat her countrywoman Jan Lehane—a fine but not extraordinary player in many ways—four times in the finals. She defeated Bueno in the 1965 final when the Brazilian had to retire with an injury at 5-2 down in the final set. And Nancy Richey—who took the title the following year—had to default the final to Court in 1966. But the fact remains that Court played some outstanding tennis at the Australian over the years. And if she over-performed in some ways at the Australian [Open} Championships, she clearly did not do herself justice at Wimbledon. Three titles there on the lawns was a surprisingly small number for a player of her large stature. Why was that the case?

“I probably got off to a bad start at Wimbledon,” she replies. “In my early years there I withdrew from the [official] Australian team and I sort of got branded in the English press for doing that. I was on billboards and all over the newspapers and it was all very negative. I went through a lot at Wimbledon. It wasn’t my favorite stadium to play in. I preferred to play in the U.S. and Australia and even at the French. Back then you didn’t have your family or other people around you like they do now, so it was a horrific time for me to be 18 and be branded that way. I don’t know too many people who would be able to take that today. They thought I was a rebel for withdrawing from the Australian team, which I did out of principle. I remember going there as the No. 1 seed in 1962 and I lost to Billie Jean in the first round when she was the No. 2 American and a floater. That could not happen today. I was thrown out there amongst the wolves at a very early age.”

That disconcerting experience surely colored everything Court felt about returning to Wimbledon year after year, and unsettled her in many ways. But does she feel that her nerves in that setting also played a substantial role in her disappointing results at the world’s premier event? “Well,” she answers, “look at the world No. 1 today [Caroline Wozniacki]. She still hasn’t won a Grand Slam [tournament], has she? So you have to be honest [with yourself] about that [the nerves]. You look at Martina Navratilova and she won the French only twice, but she was brought up on that surface. Billie Jean won the French only one time. We all had our things and places we liked and didn’t like. Look at Federer and how long it took him to win the French, and he is European.”

In any case, Court competed against a wide range of top of the line rivals during a scintillating career which ended in 1977, when she was 34 and expecting her fourth child. Her first child was born in 1972, her second in 1974, and the third in 1976. Resuming competition after giving birth was no easy task. As Court recollects, “Probably if I hadn’t had my second child when I did, then I probably could have played on longer. But once you have a second baby it is a challenge, and I think I came back too early after that. I probably could have gone on a few more years, stayed in America and made money like a lot of them did, but I didn’t feel that was right. My heart wasn’t in it.”

 In any event, Court played against a cavalcade of formidable players across her esteemed career. There was King, of course, but also Bueno, Evonne Goolagong, and even the young Navratilova and Evert. How does she rate those formidable rivals based upon personal experience? Court responds, “Probably the one I had the most battles with was Billie Jean. She was a great competitor. I was at the end of my career when Martina was just coming up, and I remember beating Chris in the finals of the French when she was very young [18]. They were all great players and competitors. Maria Bueno was such a graceful player and they called her ‘La Bueno’. She had a lot of injuries. But she was beautiful to watch. You would love to see someone like her today.  I remember losing to Evonne just once and that was when I was three months pregnant in the 1971 Wimbledon final. What stands out in my mind about some of the past great players is that they were consistent for a long time. Today you don’t see the top players doing it week after week like the old days. They are all so even but nobody stands out today.”

How does Court assess Serena Williams? “She is one of those players,” says Margaret, “who sort of walks out on the court and dominates, not just with her game but with the gamesmanship of it. She has got a big serve and she can volley and has the power strokes, but look at the rackets the players today are using. They are beautiful. We sort of pioneered metal rackets in my day and when I won the Grand Slam I played with a Chemold racket. The head of that racket was like a squash racket nearly, and I look back now and wonder how we ever played with those rackets. I love watching men’s tennis at the moment but you need the Williams sisters because when it is two girls going at it from the baseline it can be quite boring. Because there are so many injuries now I do sense there will be a swing again back toward the aggressive side of the game. I admire the Williams sisters with their power game and they are good athletes. But the women’s game needs variety.”

Can Court envision herself competing against the likes of Serena Williams today?  “If we had been brought up at this time with the rackets they are using now, I think most of us would have fitted in. Navratilova would have fit in and Billie Jean would have fit in. Back then I think I was one of the fittest players in the world and I got called ‘The Aussie Amazon’ because I did weights and circuit training and running sand hills. My coach Stan Nichols was ahead of his time as a fitness coach. He trained Olympic athletes and the Davis Cup team and I was very fortunate in that respect. I hardly had an injury in my career. I think I would have loved playing today and I believe I could have done well.”

In her era, Court was surrounded by a good many attacking players and the volley was an essential tool of the trade. Is she still optimistic that the volley will once more become prevalent in women’s tennis? “I feel the volley will come back,” she contends. “The players today are not lasting long in the game. There is too much damage being done to bodies. The grass and the clay in my time weren’t as hard on the body as these [hard] courts today. Look at a player like Petra Kvitova. She can volley. That will happen with other players. If the coaches will start teaching the volley to players at seven or eight they will get a feel at the net. If you wait to teach them the volley at 15, they will always stay at the baseline because that is what they are used to.”

Court lauds Samantha Stosur for her facility on the volley. Stosur, of course, became the first Australian woman to win the U.S. Open in 2011 since Court took her last major singles title in 1973. The last Australian female to win a Grand Slam singles title of any kind was Goolagong at Wimbledon in 1980. Does Court see Stosur stepping up again to claim more majors? “Sam has the strokes,” says Court. “She can do it all. She is a good volleyer. But it is confidence that she needs. Sam could win a lot more but it will depend on her mental side and believing in herself. She is a late comer really at 27. She has everything she needs to do it but I have always said she is her own worst enemy.”

And yet, while Court has maintained an interest in the game she once ruled so comprehensively, her life has been altered sweepingly by her devotion to religion. She is officially recognized these days as The Reverend Dr. Margaret Smith Court. In the early 1980’s, she went to bible school and by 1991 had become a minister. She eventually established Margaret Court Ministries in her nation. As she reflects on that part of her life, Court says, “After tennis I decided to go to bible school. I was a born against Christian when I was No. 1 in the world. Going to bible school changed my life completely. I just felt God was calling me. In 1996, I phoned two pastors who had been to bible school with me and told them what I was sensing. That year we started the Victory Life Centre in Perth and we have been going for 15 years. We have got an international bible training center connected with different nations and it has grown very big. It has been tremendous. You see young people come off the streets who may have been on drugs and their self-worth makes them feel it is not worth living, and then these people’s lives are changed and they are set free. To me that is very, very fulfilling.”

Court’s commitment to her religious work is clearly genuine and all-encompassing. As she explains, “When I was playing tennis I used to go to church every Sunday, even if I was in the Wimbledon final. People say of me that I have become so spiritual, but this is a lifestyle and it is not something you turn on and off. It is a big part of your life and you love it. You realize that we are just passing through here on earth so you have a whole different outlook on life. I only wish I had known before what I know now, particularly about the area of the mind. God is one of the greatest teachers in the area of the mind. I think I would have won six or more Wimbledons instead of three.”

But because her views on morality and lifestyle are so absolute and unequivocal, Mrs. Court has found herself at the center of controversy recently because of her unwavering views on same sex marriage. She is adamantly opposed to gay marriage, and that point of view has put her in strong opposition to some prominent tennis players. Both Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova have expressed their understandable dismay over Court’s statements about gay marriage. Many in the tennis community have rallied behind the likes of King and Navratilova. But Reverend Court remains steadfast in her convictions.

When I brought up the sentiments and equally strong convictions of King and Navratilova on the other side of this issue to Court during the interview, she said, “I have nothing against them at all. We have gay people in our church. I think the press released something about somebody saying I hate gays, but that is not true at all. I help them in our church and work with them, and some of them are married [to members of the opposite sex] today and have children. I feel it is a choice of life, and it has never been proven that [being gay] is genetic or anything like that. It is a choice. When it comes to marriage, it is between a man and a woman and not two women or two men. Mine is a biblical stand. Marriage should stay as marriage. If gay people want to have unions, they should do so, but leave marriage alone. Let’s not start messing around with the things that God ordained, because I really believe if you do that, nations can go into very moral decline.”

I sensed Court had no personal animosity about Navratilova and King or others who share their philosophy on same sex marriage, and she affirmed that. But then she added, “People always try to justify themselves. But from God’s eyes it is not right and I am not hurt by them [King and Navratilova] or angry with them because of what they think about me or say about me. Many years ago Martina tried to justify herself to me at Wimbledon, and I said, ‘Martina, I love you and God loves you, but a wrong doesn’t make a right.’ They have their views and opinions but I just want to protect family and protect marriage.”

The conversation shifted back to tennis, and the joy that the sport has given her across a lifetime, along with the pride she took in winning more majors than any man or woman in the history of the game. “I never really think about it that much, “she told me, “unless someone like you brings it up to me. I still play tennis and enjoy it, and it is a part of my life that I loved. I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I have had in life without tennis. I came from a family that had nothing. We were from a small country town in Australia. It opened doors for me in life and brought honor and fame. I love sport and I love the outdoors. I would have loved to be a player today and it would have been much easier to deal with the travel when you have all of those people around you and family and friends to support you.”

Court paused, and then added, “It was a very lonely time in many ways when I played but I loved winning the majors. It was an exciting time when I played and there were a lot of changes that came about, including the tiebreaker. Gladys Heldman did so much then to put women’s tennis on the map. She never got the credit she deserved. Women’s tennis had lived in the shadows of men’s tennis but then the doors were opened. Probably the thing I didn’t like was when women’s tennis went one way and the men went the other way. A lot of my friends were amongst the men including my practice partners and I found that a bit difficult. These days they seem to be bringing more tournaments with the women and men back together, which is very healthy for the game. But I feel I fulfilled all of my goals and dreams and now I am fulfilling another part of my life and I love that.”

Remember this about Margaret Smith Court as you watch the 2012 Australian Open: she is one of only three women at the four major events to have her name honored in a substantial way. The Suzanne Lenglen Court at Roland Garros celebrates the finest Frenchwoman ever to play the game. The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center pays tribute to an icon who made landmark contributions to the world of women’s sports. And Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne salutes the best Australian woman tennis player of all time, and one of the greatest ever from any part of the world.

She is worthy of that recognition.