Players urge renaming of Margaret Court Arena

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga serves during his third round match against Pierre-Hugues Herbert at Margaret Court Arena during the Australian Open 2016.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga serves during his third round match against Pierre-Hugues Herbert at Margaret Court Arena during the Australian Open 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (NYTIMES) - Show Court 1, one of the biggest stadiums at the Australian Open, was rechristened Margaret Court Arena in 2003 to honor the player who dominated women's tennis in the 1960s and still holds the record for the most Grand Slam titles.

It is unclear what the stadium will be called when the tournament begins in Melbourne next January.

Court, 74, now a pastor in Perth, has reignited debate about her legacy and how the sport should celebrate her by making a series of inflammatory comments recently about gays and same-sex marriage.

Her beliefs are not new - her public comments first stirred protests in 2012 - but her unflinching remarks have provoked some current players to say they would object to playing on a court named after her.

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"I think it would be a good thing to see if the Australian Open can maybe change the name of the stadium," Richel Hogenkamp, who is gay, said after winning her first-round match Monday at the French Open, where talk about Court has commanded unusual attention. "Because I think if you're in that kind of position, maybe some players, they don't feel so comfortable playing in a stadium named after Margaret Court."

The latest controversy was stirred by a letter to the editor that Court wrote last week criticising the chief executive of Qantas, Alan Joyce, for signaling his company's support for same-sex marriage, which is not legal in Australia.

"I believe in marriage as a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible," Court wrote in The West Australian. "Your statement leaves me no other option but to use other airlines where possible for my extensive traveling."

In interviews in the ensuing days, Court has remained steadfast.

Speaking to 20Twenty Vision Christian Radio on Monday, Court described tennis as "full of lesbians" who predatorily "took young ones into parties," and compared the efforts to teach children about gender fluidity to the methods of Nazism and communism.

"You can think, 'Oh, I'm a boy,' and it will affect your emotions and feelings and everything else," Court said. "So, that's all the devil - that's what Hitler did and that's what communism did: got the mind of the children. It's a whole plot in our nation, and in the nations of the world, to get the minds of the children." Court has found a powerful ally atop Australian government in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Asked about the controversy in an interview with the Australian radio network 3AW, he came out against any change to the tennis stadium's name.


Australian great Margaret Court claimed "tennis is full of lesbians" and transgender children were the work of "the devil". PHOTO: AFP

 

"Whatever people may think about Margaret Court's views about gay marriage - and she's entitled to have them and she's entitled to fly on whatever airline she likes or not - you know, she is one of the all-time greats," Turnbull said. "The Margaret Court Arena celebrates Margaret Court the tennis player." Court, who played from 1960 to 1977, won 24 Grand Slam singles titles, one more than Serena Williams. Court's record of 62 major titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles is unlikely to be broken.

But the criticism of Court and support for renaming the arena among current players has magnified compared to her previous flash points. The tennis great Martina Navratilova, who is gay, was among those to suggest that the arena's name be changed. Tennis governing bodies, including the International Tennis Federation and the Women's Tennis Association, have sought to distance themselves from Court's remarks.

A statement from Tennis Australia, which organizes the Australian Open, said: "As a legend of the sport, we respect Margaret Court's achievements and her unmatched playing record. Her personal views are her own, and do not align with Tennis Australia's values of equality, inclusion and diversity."

The tide within tennis seemed to shift with a tweet from the Australian doubles specialist Casey Dellacqua, who wrote: "Margaret. Enough is Enough," and appended a photograph of another letter that Court wrote four years earlier.

After Dellacqua announced in 2013 that her partner, Amanda Judd, had given birth to the couple's first child, a son, Court warned in a letter to the newspaper The Australian that the infant's birth indicated a looming threat of a "fatherless generation." "Personally, I have nothing against Casey Dellacqua or her 'partner,'" Court wrote. "I simply want to champion the rights of the family over the rights of the individual to engineer social norms and produce children into their relationships." Dellacqua said she posted the letter because she had reached a breaking point after seeing that "more and more stuff just keeps coming out" from Court.

She said she was hurt at the time of Court's 2013 letter, but "I let it go because it was a very happy time in my life so I kind of just ignored it and thought, 'I'm not going to let anyone ruin my happiness.'" The letter had not been widely circulated when first published, and its targeting of Dellacqua turned many on the women's tour against Court and her legacy. The American player Madison Keys said she agreed with having the arena's name changed after reading Court's letter.

Ashleigh Barty, Dellacqua's doubles partner and a fellow Australian, praised her for her focus and willpower in winning a doubles title last weekend in Strasbourg, France, in the face of the controversy.

"Everyone is entitled to their views, but when there was a bit of a personal attack on someone so close to me, I don't think that's right," Barty said. "I think it was just time for us to stand up, not only for Case but for everyone." The German player Andrea Petkovic said that tennis greatness alone often did not make for a role model.

"I feel like there are a lot of people, especially from the older generation, who have sort of missed out on that times are moving on," she said. "And maybe, also, naming courts should also move with the times, and not stay for tradition. As I've learned as I've been on tour for 10 years, sometimes it seems to be more difficult to be a character with principles than to be a champion." Samantha Stosur, Australia's best player over the last decade, sent her first tweet of the year to show support for Dellacqua's message. She said she understood calls for the arena's name to be changed.

"I guess we'll cross that bridge when we all get down to the Australian Open next year," Stosur said. "See who wants to play on Margaret Court Arena, and who doesn't, and we'll go from there."

Margaret Court Arena has become an increasingly multipurpose site since a recent government-funded renovation that included the addition of a retractable roof. The arena hosts basketball games and concerts year-round. Even Margaret Court Arena's official Twitter account distanced itself from its namesake.

"Melbourne & Olympic Parks does not support Margaret Court's comments and we remain an organization committed to embracing equality, diversity and inclusion; from our fans to our colleagues who deliver the events that people love to attend," its post read.

Unpopular stances are not new for Court. She has also stirred outrage for saying "Christianity is a way forward" for Aboriginal Australians. During her playing days, she was a dissenting voice among tennis players when she came to the defense of apartheid South Africa, which had denied entry to African-American player Arthur Ashe.

"It is a tragedy that politics has come into sport," Court told The New Zealand Herald in 1970, "but if you ask me, South Africa has the racial situation rather better organized than anyone else, certainly much better than the United States." In recent years, some American universities have changed the names of buildings that honored long-dead namesakes who held racist views. But it is unusual for the issue of a building's name to play out with the namesake still living and around the sport and drawing attention for political views.

With a capacity of 7,500, Margaret Court Arena is the third-largest stadium used at the Australian Open. The other main stadiums are named after Rod Laver, who is also still alive, and Hisense, a Chinese electronics company. At the French Open, the two show courts are named for Philippe Chatrier, a former player, journalist and tennis official who died in 2000; and Suzanne Lenglen, the best women's player of the early 20th century, who died in 1938.

James Blake, a former tennis player who is working as an analyst for Tennis Channel at the French Open, praised the U.S. Open for its naming choices.

"I think in our country, in the States, there's good reason why our two biggest naming honors are for people who fought for equality, fought for civil rights: Arthur Ashe Stadium and the Billie Jean King Tennis Center," Blake said. "Both of them were fighting for equality and got courts named after them."