Margaret Smith Court:
With the recent comments by Billie Jean King about renaming a Stadium at the Australian Open, from The Margaret Court Arena to something else, one might ask, “Who is Margaret Court?” Followed by, “Why was an arena named after her in the first place?”
Margaret Smith was born to a Roman Catholic Family in Albury, New South Wales, Australia in July of 1942. A left-hander at birth she played tennis right handed. She took up tennis at 8 years old and was dominant in Australian Juniors which culminated in a win at the Australian Open in 1960 at the age of 17. This would be the first of seven straight wins Down Under for Smith. The win allowed her the opportunity to compete world-wide. She quickly became the best in the tennis world. She won her first French Title in 1962, defeating Lesley Turner in a 3-set final. Later that year she won the U.S. Championship, making her the champion of 3 of the four Major Championships at age 19. This began a run of true world dominance.
She won two of the four Majors in 1963 (Australia and Wimbledon), completing the career Grand Slam at age 20. She won two more Majors in 1964, then three in 1965 (her only loss was in the Finals of the French to Lesley Turner). She opened 1966 winning another Australian, but lost her will to play, after losing in the Semi-Finals of both the French and Wimbledon Championships. She suddenly retired.
In 1967, she married Barry Court. She returned to tennis as Margaret Court the following year. In 1968 she played in 3 of the four Majors, not winning any. Then in 1969, she ran off a string of 8 wins in the next nine Majors, losing only in the 1969 Wimbledon Championships. 1970 saw her become only the second women to win the Calendar Grand Slam (Maureen Connolly did it in 1953 and Steffi Graf would in 1988). She became pregnant with her first child during the 1971 season, limiting her participation on the women circuit. Returning to full time play late in 1972, after the birth of her child, she won 3 of the four Majors in 1973 (Losing only at Wimbledon), again vaulting to #1 in the world.
Again, she became pregnant. Margaret and Barry welcomed their second child in 1974. She would take the entire year off of tennis. She rejoined the tour in 1975, but could not regain her previous form, so when she became pregnant with her third child she retired for good. The Courts would have a fourth child after she gave up tennis.
Margaret Smith Court just might be the greatest woman tennis player of all time. She was an exact contemporary of Billie Jean King, and her record is clearly better. She’s won 24 Major Single Titles, the most of all time (11 Australians, 5 French, 5 U.S., 3 Wimbledon’s). By contrast King won 12 in her career. Court also has the best Doubles record in history of Women’s tennis, winning 19 Women’s Doubles Majors (8 Australians, 5 U.S., 4 French, 2 Wimbledon’s) and 21 Mixed Double Major Titles (8 U.S., 5 Wimbledon’s, 4 Australians, 4 French). That’s 64 total Major Championships. That’s the most of all time. Martina Navratilova is second with 59. Billie Jean King won 39. She leads King head to head 22-10, 4-1 in Major Finals. King is consistently rated (legitimately) as one of the ten greatest women players of all time, but she is obviously inferior in ability to Margaret Court.
The International Tennis Hall of Fame says of Margaret Court; “For shear strength of performance and accomplishment there has never been a tennis player to match her.” Her career winning percentage in the Open Era is 91.17% (593-56), the best in history. She won a record 21 single titles in 1970. With the forming of the WTA, she holds the record for Singles Titles in a calendar year, 18, which she accomplished in 1973 (which, you’ll remember, she had just returned from maternity leave). Her record in Grand Slam events is 210-23. Besides her Calendar Slam in 1970, she also won 3 of the four Majors on four different occasions, 1962, 1965, 1969, 1973. This was tied by Steffi Graf for most ever. She won the Calendar Grand Slam twice in Mixed Doubles, the only person to win a Calendar Slam in two events. And, maybe most impressive of all, in her career she won 24 of the 47 Majors she competed in. By comparison, Serena Williams has won 23 of 66 Majors, Martina Navratilova 18 of 66, Steffi Graf 22 of 54, and Billie Jean King 12 of 51.
The naming of the 2nd most prestigious court at Melbourne Park after Court is completely appropriate. She won the Australian Open Trophy more than any other woman in history. She is the greatest female tennis player Australia has ever had. Her name raises the prestige and reputation of Melbourne Park based on the body of her work.
Margaret Court is obviously a stellar tennis player, so why are Court’s accolades rarely the topic of conversation in modern media?
Five reasons identified:
- Her career straddles the Majors entering the Open Era in 1968 (note: The Open Era opened up the Majors to professionals. Before 1968, only amateurs were allowed to play in the Open diminishing the player pool) Court won 13 of her 24 major single titles prior to 1968, also 36 of her 64 total major titles. This is not a very compelling argument. Women’s tennis did not have a vibrant Pro Tour, as the men did, before the Open Era. Margaret was competing against most of the best women players of the time before 1968. Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey, Ann Haydon-Jones, and Maria Bueno were in the fields of these Majors. She was beating the best players in the world. This is best shown by the fact that Margaret was the #1 ranked women in the world in 1962 through 1965. If you compare that to the men, when Rod Laver won the calendar Grand Slam in 1962 he was not ranked the #1 player in the world, Ken Rosewall was. Rosewall played the Professional Tour and was ineligible for the traditional Majors. The women’s best players were playing against Court throughout her career.
- Of Margaret Court’s 24 Single and 40 Double Majors, 11 of the Single and 12 of the Doubles, were at the weakest of the Majors (The Australian). This is a reasonable concern. The Australian did have the weakest draws of the Majors, and is clearly the least prestigious of the four Majors. The problem with this, if you take away all her Australian Open wins she still leads King in Major Single Titles 13-12 and total Major Titles (including doubles) 41-39. This gives Court no credit for any of her Australian Open wins but does give Billie Jean King credit for her Australian Open crowns (King has three total Australian titles, one in each event-singles, doubles and mixed doubles).
- Margaret Court was only ranked #1 in the world seven times which trails Helen Wills Moody, Chris Evert, and Steffi Graf. This can easily be explained. After being ranked #1 in 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1965 she retired from tennis after Wimbledon in 1966. This allowed Billie Jean King to have the top ranking in 1966, 1967, and 1968. When Court returned to tennis in 1968, she quickly returned to the top spot in 1969 and 1970. She became pregnant with her first child in 1971 (Daniel, born March 1972) and did not return to competitive tennis until late 1972. She regained her #1 Ranking in 1973. This is pretty impressive. Twice she gave up tennis while ranked first to come back and regain the top spot.
- Her life choices after ending her Tennis Career may have contributed to a lack of media attention. This is the most difficult explanation filled with nuance and judgements made on culture and media. Raised a Roman Catholic, Court became a Pentecostal Christian in the early 1970s, becoming a Pentecostal Minister in 1991. With her husband they created the Margaret Court Ministries. In 1995, they built the Victory Life Center in Perth. She hosts a Television Show on the Australian Christian Channel. She has a long association with the Word of Faith Movement. She is a strong supporter of the Australian Family Association and Drug Free Australia. She is a strong critic of abortion and a vocal advocate for traditional marriage. These opinions put her in opposition to most of modern media’s view on social issues. She is not hero-worshiped the way her contemporary Billie Jean King is for her political stances. Billie Jean King has had movies made about her and is regularly honored for her social justice work, especially Title IX.
- Margaret Court lost to Bobby Riggs in “The Mothers Day Massacre” while Billie Jean King beat Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes”. This is the silliest, but probably most accurate reason for her low regard. Court did not understand the consequences of a loss to Riggs. She treated it as an exhibition, spent no time preparing for the match, and was crushed 6-2, 6-1. Her losing was not a surprise to anyone who knew tennis, but the sports media was outraged. How could the #1 woman player in the world lose to a 55 year old has-been? When Billie Jean King soundly beat Riggs later before a national television audience at the Astrodome in the most famous match in tennis history it cemented the idea that King was better than Margaret Court. However, as we have clearly stated, she was not.
Dave’s All-Time Greatest Women’s Tennis Rankings
Greatest Women Singles Players: Greatest overall Woman Tennis Players:
- Serena Williams 1. Margaret Court
- Steffi Graf 2. Martina Navratilova
- Margaret Court 3. Serena Williams
- Martina Navratilova 4. Billie Jean King
- Chris Evert 5. Helen Wills Moody
- Helen Wills Moody 6. Steffi Graf
- Billie Jean King 7. Chris Evert
- Maureen Connolly 8. Venus Williams
- Monica Seles 9. Martina Hingas
- Venus Williams 10. Maureen Connolly
Greatest Women’s Singles Player
- Margaret Court
- Serena Williams
- Steffi Graff
- Martina Navratilova
- Chris Evert