Arthur Ashe overcame poverty and racism to become the first African-American male to win Wimbledon and the US Open and become the best player in the world. Born dirt-poor in Richmond, Virginia but encouraged as a junior by his coach to call any ball within two inches of the line IN.
An athlete who transcended the sport of tennis to the extent that the award named in his honour is given mostly to people who have nothing to do with the sport. So when you think of what Arthur Ashe stadium represents, it’s much more about him as a human being than a tennis player. The same goes for Billie Jean King. Equality, fairness, grace and humility on and of the sporting field.
Which brings us to Margaret Court. The problem now for Margaret is that, effectively, the net has been raised a couple of inches higher. And she keeps double-faulting right into it, unapologetically.
Times have changed. In 1965 Roy Emerson shirtfronted an umpires chair diving for a drop shot and could barely serve. When he lost his next match he didn’t say even a word. Kim Warwick was runner-up at the 1980 Marlboro Australian Open. And it wasn’t so long ago that Virginia Slims sponsored the womens tour.
Now, it just doesn’t seem right that Court could even show up at the tennis venue she’s been named after (not that she would even want to fly Qantas to get here). Now, the thought of her handing over any trophy at the home of Australian tennis is not just awkward, it’s excruciating.
As Rugby League’s Ian Roberts pointed out without exaggeration, ‘there are young kids in the suburbs taking their own lives’ because of what they have to put up with.
“That’s what Hitler did, that’s what Communism did – got the mind of the children. And it’s a whole plot in our nation and in the nations of the world to get the minds of the children.”
See what I mean?
If you go onto any governing sporting organisation’s website in Australia you’ll read mission statements that champion inclusion, access and equality of all participants- whether they be players, coaches, parents, officials or spectators.
The argument trotted out in her defence is that she was a great tennis player and athlete, and that’s what she is being honoured for, regardless of any views she may have. But it’s an unconvincing one. While it’s no endorsement of her views, the longer her name adorns the venue that millions of people a year visit, the more jarring the dissonance between what the sport is trying to achieve (there’s that access and equality) and what many may feel it represents.
One could argue that the behaviour of certain Australian tennis players has given tennis a bit of a bad name, but that would appear to be more about their on-court boorish behaviour than their personal views.
There was one other tennis player who, like Arthur Ashe, overcome racial inequality and poverty to become one of Australia’s greatest tennis players. A player who is synonymous with grace, humility on and off the court, and grew up in a small town in NSW to also become Wimbledon champion. So I think you probably know where I’m going with this.
But the last word on this deserves to go to Ash Barty’s old doubles partner Casey Dellacqua who was singled out for criticism of her same-sex marriage by Court in 2013.
“I’m very conscious of the fact that everyone is allowed their opinion, but when start singling out my family especially, that’s when it’s not ok,” she said.
“That’s when I thought, you know what, it’s time for us to stand up.”
Most tennis players I know think the sport’s governing body should do the same thing.