The 1960s tennis legend Billie Jean King has said that the second-string court at the Australian Open – Margaret Court Arena – should be renamed in light of the homophobic comments spouted by its namesake.
Court is an 11-time champion at this event, but since becoming a Pentecostal pastor she has offended many with her repeated criticisms of gays, lesbians and transgender people, whom she linked to the devil and the Nazi party in a particularly toxic outburst in May.
Ironically, King – whose strained relationship with Court was explored in the recent hit film Battle of the Sexes – said that she had been among those who called for Court to be honoured at Melbourne Park in the first place.
But King, who is 74, has since changed her mind and now says that, “If I were playing today, I would not play on it [Margaret Court Arena].”
As King went on to explain, “I was fine until lately, when she said so many derogatory things about my community. I'm a gay woman, and that really went deep in my heart and soul. I personally don't think she should have her name [on the stadium] any more. If you were talking about indigenous people, Jews or any other people, I can't imagine the public would want somebody to have her name on something.
“I have my name on the whole facility in the US,” added King, in reference to the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre in the Queens borough of New York, which has staged the US Open since 1978. “Every time I see my name up there, I can hardly breathe because of the responsibility that goes with it. I would welcome Margaret, I would welcome Pentecostals, I would welcome whoever, whether I agree with them or not.
“I just think she's gotten really derogatory. When she talked about children of transgenders being from the devil, that put me over the edge because we're all God's children, all the best we can be. It took me until I was 51 to feel comfortable in my own skin. Shame-based things are very difficult, so that's the last thing we need. Children who are LGBT have a much higher rate of suicide, so for Margaret, or anybody, to be derogatory towards us, I just think is not healthy.”
King’s opinions were particularly embarrassing for Tennis Australia because they came at an official press conference at Melbourne Park, during which King was being unveiled as “the Australian Open Woman of the Year”.
She was also supposed to be launching an initiative entitled #Open4All, which – according to the press release – is “designed to celebrate the intrinsic fairness and equality of the sport of tennis”. But there was a clear contradiction between #Open4All’s ideals and Tennis Australia’s long-standing refusal to address the Margaret Court issue.
The 7,500-seater stadium - which has been named after Court since 2003 – received an expansion and a new roof in 2015, whereupon it was promoted from third-string status to become Melbourne Park’s second stage. Numerous players have highlighted its association with intolerance, from Britain’s own Laura Robson – who wore a rainbow headband on the court in 2012 – to Australia’s Sam Stosur, who called for a player boycott in May.
Placed in the awkward situation of having to defend the indefensible, Tennis Australia’s chief executive Craig Tiley suggested that “Margaret’s views are not our views”, and added that the decision of what to call the stadium was not his to make.
“It's up to a broader group of people," Tiley explained. "There's the Trust, the tennis organisation in the facility, the [Victoria State] government who owns and redevelops the venue.”
Asked if there was a process in motion to change the name, Tiley replied: “Not that I'm aware of. There are a number of stakeholders. There is an ongoing conversation. We take our leadership and our position from the government."
In the build-up to the tournament, Tiley said that he had not received any requests from players seeking to be scheduled away from Margaret Court Arena. But that situation may well change after King’s unscheduled intervention.
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The Australian Open website initially posted a full audio recording of King’s press conference, only to take it down after a couple of hours. A 600-word report can still be found, in which the words “Margaret” and “Court” made no appearance at all.
After the criticism surrounding Maria Sharapova’s appearance at the draw ceremony on Thursday evening, it has been an unfortunate 24 hours for this usually sure-footed event.