Margaret Court has no time to practise now she’s preaching
Margaret Court, one of the great Wimbledon campaigners, stepped back on to Centre Court last week for the first time since her playing days. Or, to be more precise, it was the Reverend Margaret Court who returned to the world’s most pampered patch of grass for the parade of champions.
The woman who once dispensed ferocious forehands now delivers a religious message with formidable conviction, as you might expect from the senior pastor of Margaret Court Ministries, an international organisation based on the non- denominational Victory Life Centre, which she founded in her hometown of Perth, Western Australia, five years ago.
“We have a congregation of about 800 people,” she says. “We have a community service that feeds about 100 families a week; we have a counselling service that helps single mums, druggies and all sorts of other people; and we have a Bible school, which is full-time.”
On the more mundane subject of her towering tennis career, Court spoke candidly when we talked before she joined the other champions – and runners-up – on court in Wimbledon’s millennium pageant, recalling what a difficult tournament it had been for her. This was a little surprising considering she won 10 titles, including three singles championships, between 1963 and 1975.
In the other three Grand Slam events, though, she won a staggering 52 titles. “I got off to a bad start in my early years competing at Wimbledon,” she says. Which is another way of saying that in 1962 she suffered one of the most famous defeats in the tournament’s history. The 1-6 6-3 7-5 loss against a little-known American, Billie Jean Moffitt – later a rather better-known Billie Jean King – made her the first top seed ever to lose her opening match (a distinction she now shares with Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis). The British media, every bit as pitiless then as they are now, never let her forget it.
“After that the press gave me a hard time, which didn’t happen to me anywhere else,” she says. “And once you’re branded you start to doubt yourself. It’s not fun when you drive around London and see billboards saying, ‘Will she be nervous this time?’ I look back and think I wouldn’t have had the fears I had then if I’d known what I do now and have learnt through the power of the scriptures.”
Court (57), who retired in 1977 when she found she was expecting the third of her four children, reckons she could have won six Wimbledon singles titles, instead of just three, and counts the 1964 final when she was a break up in the third set against the Brazilian Maria Bueno as the most obvious example of a missed opportunity through the insecurities that afflicted her playing days.
She was a powerfully athletic player with a heavy serve, and with a reach and volleying technique that made her fiendishly hard to pass at the net. She achieved her early success as Margaret Smith, but, during a two-year break from the game in the mid-Sixties, she moved from eastern Australia to Perth, where she married Barry Court. “In that break I never picked up a racket,” she says, “but then, I don’t know why, I just happened to say to Barry, ‘How about we go overseas and just for one year you see the life that I’ve led playing tennis.’ That was in 1967 and we went on for nearly another 10 years.”
Her golden year was 1970 when she won the Grand Slam of the game’s four major titles. “Doing it all in the one year is probably the most difficult thing because you’ve got to stay at a peak of fitness and confidence. It’s a pressure-packed year, particularly leading up to the last title.”
She says her biggest regret was playing Bobby Riggs in the first of two extravagantly hyped “Battle of the Sexes” matches in the United States in 1973. She lost in straight sets, before King restored the pride of the women’s game by winning the second match. “I wasn’t ready for the showbiz side of it,” she says, “which I would have been if I’d played team tennis by then. I was used to playing at places like Wimbledon where you could hear a pin drop.”
The only tennis she plays these days is coaching a couple of youngsters from her church. “It’s very enjoyable running around with them, but I don’t have the time any more to play club tennis or anything like that.”
Throughout her playing career, Court, who was raised a Roman Catholic, remained a regular churchgoer, even during the major championships, and a service she attended in France in about 1970 was the start of a chain of events that eventually led to her being ordained in 1991. “I remember going to Mass one day, and they were all speaking in Latin and French, and I didn’t understand a word of it. I said, ‘Lord, there must be more to it than this. Where are you?’.”
Shortly after this, she and her husband went to stay with friends in the US. “The wife was always giving me these little books and I said to Barry, ‘I think she’s becoming a religious nut.’ I put most of the books in the rubbish bin, but I kept one about accepting Jesus Christ as Lord of your life.
“It didn’t mean a lot to me at the time, but when I went back home to Perth, a very good friend of mine came round and I said, ‘What’s happened to you? You look different.’ I started going to meetings with her and listened, and knew they had something I didn’t have. Not long after that I gave my heart to Christ.”
But the contentment she says she feels today – “My life is much fuller now, seeing people’s lives change and young people becoming victorious in life” – remained elusive until she underwent a personal crisis in the late Seventies. “I became very sick. I had a torn valve of the heart, was suffering from depression and my life became a mess, particularly when my four children were all small. Because of the heart condition, they said I’d have to be on medication for the rest of my life, but I gave it up years ago. I was totally healed through the power of knowing God’s word and renewing my mind to it.”
Which may not seem the best moment to return the conversation to matters of the flesh, although there are those who regard Anna Kournikova as a divine gift, which may be why Court is so fulsome in her support.
“I think the women’s game should be grateful that there are people like her about to draw the crowds.”