Australian politics, society & culture

Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
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When Margaret Court walked into the locker room at the close of the 1973 French Open, Martina Navratilova tried not to gawk. Court was a figure of awe, the most successful player in the history of women’s tennis. Navratilova was an ungainly teenager competing in her first international tournament. When the player known as ‘the Arm’ said hello, young Martina was “thrilled” to have been recognised. Margaret knew class when she saw it, acknowledging Navratilova as “the wave of the future”.

In due course, the up-and-comer and the champ faced each other across the net. It was the quarter-finals of the 1975 Australian Open and Court was nearing the end of her stellar career. The first Australian woman to win Wimbledon, she’d taken every possible grand slam title – singles, same-sex doubles and mixed doubles – winning at least one of these at each of the four majors. Along the way, she’d had two children and become the first mother to be world number one. At 32, she had nothing left to prove.

Eighteen-year-old Navratilova was making her Australian debut. “A bumpkin from a communist country”, the eighth seed was no longer tied to the Czech tennis federation; if she didn’t win enough prize money to buy a ticket to her next match in America, she’d be finished.

Instead of the main arena at Kooyong, the women were relegated to an outside court, where they were forced to play amid blaring loudspeakers and the rattle of passing trains.

Left-handed Navaratilova played better than she ever had in her life. “I took it to another level … I gave her what she didn’t like: I gave her junk.” She won 6–4 6–3. The win netted her $1500 but the Sun got her name wrong in its report the next morning.

In their bout at Wimbledon that same year, the self-described “tomboy from Albury” had her revenge, playing with “matronly dignity” to overawe and outmanoeuvre Navratilova. However, Martina ended Margaret’s grand slam singles career in the quarters at Forest Hills later that year. Soon after, the Czech defected to the US and declared her sexual orientation.

In retirement, Margaret Court began to suffer “feelings of uselessness, inferiority, unworthiness”. She found succour in Jesus, became a Pentecostal pastor and founded her own church in Perth. In 1990, she accused lesbians of ruining women’s tennis and cited Navratilova as a bad example to young players.

A practising pescetarian, Navratilova eats nothing with fur or feathers. Although she played tennis right-handed, Margaret Court is a natural left-hander.

 

Published in The Monthly, December 2009 - January 2010, No. 52