The most jarring element of Battle of the Sexes, an otherwise polished film chronicling Billie Jean King’s 1973 match-up with Bobby Riggs, is the portrayal of Margaret Court. In every scene she enters, the Australian is depicted as an irredeemable shrew, either muttering darkly about “sin” – a reaction to King’s relationship with Marilyn Barnett, her LA hairdresser and first female lover – or treating her peers in a manner that is at best haughty, at worst downright unsisterly. Even her tennis is sketched with disdain, with the only competitive footage dwelling upon her 6-2, 6-1 defeat to Riggs, the so-called Mother’s Day Massacre, in what would become the prelude to his myth-shredding showdown with ‘BJK’.
Nowhere is Court’s status as the winner of 24 major titles, a mark still being pursued by Serena Williams, even noted. Save for a brief glimpse of her first child, Daniel, there is also no mention of how she managed to combine her unprecedented success with motherhood. It is a result of the directors backdating the modern perception of Court, usually one of a heartless reactionary who never ceases to offend with her tirades against same-sex relationships, into a document of a time when attitudes were different. As such, her distinctions as an athlete are excised altogether. It is “cancel culture” – that zeitgesty term for boycotting somebody’s whose opinions are unpopular – at its most shameless.
Court knows that she is being airbrushed from history. This week, she asked why the 50th anniversary of Rod Laver’s calendar grand slam was being so lavishly celebrated by Tennis Australia, when her own has merited barely a backwards glance. Next year will mark a half-century since she matched Laver by winning all four majors in a single season, but she is yet to receive any signal that she will be honoured in the same fashion.
“They have never phoned me,” she said, when asked if she had been invited to Melbourne Park for the occasion, as Laver was. “Nobody has spoken to me about it. I think they would rather not confront it.”
Her reading is accurate. Court has become an embarrassment to Australian Open organisers, with the strength of her religious convictions – which prompted a vow never to fly Qantas because of the airline’s support of same-sex marriage – sparking a campaign to rechristen the arena that bears her name. Even Anna Wintour of Vogue weighed in, arguing this year: “Intolerance has no place in tennis.”
And yet there is a nagging sense that to cave in to such demands would simply be to replace one form of intolerance with another. That much was evident in 2016, when a group of Oxford students called for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue at Oxford University, arguing that the colonial statesman was emblematic of Britain’s “imperial blind spot”. Eventually, Chris Patten, the then chancellor, shot down the campaign with contempt, telling protesting students that if they could not abide freedom of thought, they might “think about being educated elsewhere”.
It is tempting to offer a similar rebuke to those trying to expunge Court’s name from the records. The consternation around how she should be recognised has, to judge by the reluctance of Australian tennis to acknowledge that her 1970 grand slam even happened, reached absurd extremes. These days, greater controversy in tennis is aroused by the future of Margaret Court Arena than by the fact that the Foro Italico in Rome, the venue of the sport’s Italian Open, was built to glorify the brutal fascist rule of Benito Mussolini.
Admittedly, it can be difficult to summon much sympathy for Court. At 77, she seems to use her Pentecostal faith as a bully pulpit, and to make incendiary remarks – such as recently describing transgender children as the work of “the devil” – that draw publicity for her Perth ministry. In her autobiography, she all but admitted to premeditated provocation, writing: “It is undeniable I was – am – good copy.”
But the anniversary of her 1970 achievement cannot simply be ignored in response. What Court managed almost 50 years ago was a mammoth feat in tennis, and its significance is not diminished by the outrage she has since stirred with her words. For where does one even start if sports figures are “cancelled” on this basis?
Yes, it is impossible to dispute the abhorrence of her statement on apartheid policy. “South Africa have this thing better organised than any other country,” she said in the early 1970s. Then again, Gary Player was guilty of the same ignorance at the time, avowing in his 1966 book, Grand Slam of Golf: “I must say now, and clearly, that I am of the Verwoerd and apartheid…a nation which is the product of its ability to maintain civilised values among the alien barbarians.” He later apologised, and these days is acclaimed as one of the noblest ambassadors in golf.
Court will not allow herself to be ostracised quietly. She will protest to the point where Tennis Australia have to make a decision on whether to honour her 1970 season or to cut her adrift. On balance, they should let her have her moment, as a tribute to a remarkable tennis player, who remains the most decorated major champion of all. This is not a question of a grand gesture somehow legitimising her unpalatable rhetoric. Ultimately, this is a question of sport being mature enough to resist disowning its own past.