Last weekend, the Australian Open concluded in thrilling fashion, with 21-year-old Naomi Osaka winning her second straight major and becoming the first Asian player to earn the No. 1 ranking, and Novak Djokovic capturing his 15th major with a complete destruction of Rafael Nadal in the men’s final.
But while the action on Rod Laver Arena confirmed that tennis’s present and future are in very capable hands, neighboring Margaret Court Arena cast a long shadow over the event.
Margaret Court, the stadium’s namesake, is an Australian tennis legend. She has 24 major titles, the most in tennis history, and one more than Serena Williams’ Open-era record of 23. She is an important figure in the sport’s history. She is also a proud, unrepentant homophobe.
This is hardly a new development. In 1991, Court blamed lesbians for ruining women’s tennis. In 2012, the Pentecostal minister said, “The fact that the homosexual cry is, ‘We can’t help it, as we were born this way,’ as the cause behind their own personal choice is cause for concern.”
In 2017, she announced she was going to stop using Qantas, the country’s largest airline, because of its support of same-sex marriage, and, in a wide-ranging interview with a Christian radio station, essentially described tennis as a lesbian cult.
“Tennis is full of lesbians. Even when I was playing there were only a couple there, but those couple that led took young ones into parties,” Court said. “And what you get at the top is often what you’ll get right through that sport.”
In 2013, Court wrote a Letter to the Editor in an Australian newspaper, attacking Australian doubles player Casey Dellacqua for having a baby with another woman. After Court’s comments in 2017, Dellacqua felt the need to call out Court publicly. She tweeted the letter, adding the caption, “Margaret. Enough is enough.”
Margaret. Enough is enough. pic.twitter.com/Cl1DtC4aSL
— caseydellacqua (@caseydellacqua) May 25, 2017
Court has continued to repeat her homophobic comments over the past two years, and any time there is pushback, she paints herself as the victim.
“I just said what the Bible said and I think a lot of people didn’t like it,” Court told The Herald earlier this year. “Really that’s all I was saying and you got blasted because of it and bullied because of it.”
Court hasn’t just attacked same-sex marriage. She has expressed support for South Africa’s apartheid, said that transgender children were from the devil, and compared gender dysphoria to Hitler. Those comments in particular struck a nerve with tennis legends and LGBTQ activists Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, and pushed them to publicly call for Margaret Court Arena to be renamed.
“I think it’s really important if you’re going to have your name on anything that you’re hospitable, you’re inclusive, you’re open arms to everyone that comes,” King said in 2018. “It’s a public facility.”
Navratilova was more direct with her comments in 2017, when she wrote an open letter calling for Margaret Court Arena — the second largest facility in Melbourne’s National Tennis Centre — to be renamed Evonne Goolagong Arena, in honor of another former Australian No. 1 tennis player.
“It is now clear exactly who Court is: an amazing tennis player, and a racist and a homophobe,” the 18-time major champion wrote. “Her vitriol is not just an opinion. She is actively trying to keep LGBT people from getting equal rights (note to Court: we are human beings, too). She is demonizing trans kids and trans adults everywhere.”
Regrettably, only a few other players have joined the call for a name change. And at this year’s Australian Open, there was a deafening silence surrounding the issue — with the exception of Vogue Editor and massive Roger Federer fan Anna Wintour.
“I find that it is inconsistent with the sport for Margaret Court’s name to be on a stadium that does so much to bring all people together across their differences,” Wintour said in her keynote speech at the Australian Open’s Inspirational Series in Melbourne.
While tennis used to be on the forefront of LGBTQ issues — thanks largely to King and Navratilova being open about their sexuality during their playing days — these days the sport seems to lag behind other professional leagues when it comes to promoting and celebrating diversity and inclusion. At the Australian Open, Alison Van Uytvanck, Johanna Larsson, and Richel Hogenkamp were believed to be the only three out female athletes competing in singles. Only one man ever ranked in the Top 100 — American Brian Valhaly — has come out, and he did so long after he was retired. While some individual tournaments do hold Pride Nights to celebrate LGBTQ inclusion, the three main organizations in tennis — the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), and International Tennis Federation (ITF) — have all remained relatively quiet on the issue. Meanwhile, last year, the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, and WNBA all marched as leagues in the New York City Pride Parade.
This isn’t to say a large percentage of the professional tennis community shares Court’s views. In fact, many have spoken out against her homophobic and transphobic comments, including Tennis Australia, which has said, “Her personal views are her own, and do not align with Tennis Australia’s values of equality, inclusion and diversity.” Last year, Roger Federer said he welcomed the idea of having an out ATP player. Other elite players, such as Djokovic, Kevin Anderson, John Isner, and Marin Cilic have expressed support of the LGBTQ community as well. In 2012, Court’s comments inspired a protest called “Rainbow Flags Over Margaret Court Arena,” which, as the name suggests, encouraged LGBTQ individuals and allies to bring rainbow flags to the stadium during the Australian Open. British tennis player Laura Robson was playing on Margaret Court Arena during the first round of the tournament, and chose to wear a rainbow-colored hair tie for the match. “I wore it because I believe in equal rights for everyone,” Robson told reporters.
But most of the work to really engage the LGBTQ tennis community is being done on the grassroots level, thanks primarily to out tennis journalist Nick McCarvel. Before the U.S. Open last year, McCarvel held an event in New York City entitled, “Open Playbook: Being Queer and Out in Pro Tennis.” Dellacqua and Vahaly both spoke at the event, and retired American top-five player James Black sent a video message to express his allyship. In a conversation with ThinkProgress, McCarvel stressed that the event wasn’t supposed to put pressure on anyone to come out of the closet. Rather, he described it as a “celebration” of the queer community in tennis, and a chance to “move that conversation forward.”
— Nick McCarvel (@NickMcCarvel) January 12, 2019
The event was such a success that he held another one ahead of the Australian Open. This time, tennis fan and former NBA player Jason Collins — the first male pro athlete in any of the major four U.S. sports to come out — joined the conversation, as did Australian doubles champion and current coach and commentator Rennae Stubbs. Kevin Anderson, the No. 5 player in the ATP, was on hand to show his support. Perhaps most notably, Craig Tiley, the Tournament Director of the Australian Open, was in attendance as well.
These events are undoubtedly a huge step forward for the tennis community, and Tiley should be commended for attending. But until Tennis Australia finally decides to rename Margaret Court Arena, gestures feel hollow.
Queer tennis players, fans, officials, and Australian Open employees and volunteers, should not be forced to step into a stadium honoring someone who proudly denounces their humanity every chance she gets. Her trophies and significance to tennis history can’t, and shouldn’t, be erased. But the arena can, and should, be renamed. It’s the only way forward.