The world’s leading players did their best to take the sting out of the Margaret Court Arena issue on Saturday. One after the next, they trooped into the interview room at Melbourne Park and said that they would play where they were damn well told.
What an obedient workforce! And what a contrast with tennis’s two great lesbian role models – Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova – who both said on Friday that, were they still hitting balls professionally, they would have boycotted any stadium that carried Court’s name.
One typical response on Saturday came from the British No. 1 Johanna Konta, who said “I will play wherever I'm scheduled. That's out of my control.” And when asked whether she thought Melbourne Park’s second-string stage should go by a different title, Konta added “Again, I think it's a Tennis Australia decision.
“I think it's unfortunate that this whole thing has even occurred,” she went on, “because it does overshadow why her name is on the court. It's not because of her beliefs, it's because of her achievements in the sport. It's unfortunate it's kind of meshed together when they're actually quite separate.”
Konta was at one with the rest of the field on this. Even Nick Kyrgios, so often a free spirit, said he would be overlooking Court’s vile comments last year – in which she suggested that children with transgender leanings had the devil in them, and also linked the LGBT community to the Nazi party.
“I guess you’ve got to take it just as how she was as a tennis player,” Kyrgios said. “That's why the court was originally named after her, because of her tennis, what she was really good at. I guess that's what I will do. I'll try to block out the other stuff. Obviously I am okay with same-sex marriage.”
The apolitical stance of the locker-room will come as no surprise to Navratilova. Speaking to the New York Times last week, she predicted that there would be no boycotts from tennis’s big names.
This is a selfish sport and always has been, so perhaps we should not expect players to endanger their own careers by a principled stand. Even King kept her sexuality quiet until 1981, when she was forced into the open by a lawsuit from her former lover Marilyn Barnett. And with good reason, as it turned out. Within hours of that revelation, all her sponsors had fled.
When the first day’s schedule was published on Saturday, it seemed surprising that the Australian Open had put Sam Stosur, the Australian No. 3, on the problem court. Stosur, who is a close friend of the openly gay doubles player Casey Dellacqua, had hinted at a potential boycott during the French Open, when she said “We’ll see who wants to play on Margaret Court Arena and who doesn’t.” This week, though, she backed down, telling reporters that she would follow the example of Konta, Kyrgios and all the rest by acceding to the tournament’s requests.
Away from this ongoing controversy, the Australian Open could be grateful that Stan Wawrinka has declared himself fit enough to play. This was a close-run thing, as Wawrinka admitted that he had begun his practice session Friday morning without being sure what decision he would come to.
“The fact that I'm here and I'm going to play the first match, it's a big victory,” said Wawrinka, who underwent two knee operations after Wimbledon. “I waited the last minute to decide. For me, most important was to make sure the knee doesn't risk anything.”
Tournament director Craig Tiley will no doubt be delighted by Wawrinka’s decision. The 2014 Australian Open champion remains a hugely popular figure here, even if he admitted that “Physically I'm not at my level at all”.
Still, the next couple of days will nevertheless be a nervous time for the organisers, with several leading players still clogging up the treatment rooms.
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Garbine Muguruza, the reigning Wimbledon champion, is another concern after she damaged a thigh muscle in Sydney last week. “I'm training every day,” said Muguruza. “I'm doing everything I can to be fully recovered. Hopefully I'm pain-free and everything-free once the tournament starts.”
And Novak Djokovic, who used to dominate the Australian Open in the same way that Rafael Nadal owned Roland Garros, is also determined to risk his problematic right elbow after a six-month absence from the tour. “It hasn't 100 per cent healed yet,” said Djokovic, whose comments echoed those of Muguruza. “But right now it's at the level where I can compete, and every day it’s getting better.
“Throughout the tournament, I don't know how it's going to behave,” Djokovic added. “After six months of no competition, you never know how you're going to react. So let’s see. I've done everything in my power, with a team of people around me, to compete in the Australian Open.”