Looking Back at a Legend... Margaret Court
Published January 26, 2010 12:00
Year-End No.1 Finishes (Open Era): 3...6th on all-time list
Grand Slam Singles Titles: 24...1st on all-time list
Singles Titles (Open Era): 92...4th on all-time list
Doubles Titles (Open Era): 48…13th on all-time list
The young Margaret Smith already cut an impressive figure when she made her first foray to Europe in 1961. A protégé of former Wimbledon champion Frank Sedgman, she was statuesque and athletic, strong and quick, quietly confident and driven. Indeed, having won the Australian championship at 17, Smith was touted as the best female player to emerge from a country that had produced a string of iconic male champions.
By the time she drew a veil over her career in 1977, aged 35, Mrs Margaret Court had more than confirmed her place in that pantheon of greats. She had worked prodigiously hard to make the most of her physical attributes, setting new benchmarks in training - and the resulting record speaks for itself. All up, Court captured 62 Grand Slam titles - 24 in singles (only ever losing five finals), 19 in doubles and 19 mixed, the towering achievement being her sweep of all four singles majors in 1970.
Four decades on, only two other women, Maureen Connolly (1953) and Steffi Graf (1988) have achieved the feat in a calendar year. As well as winning the mixed doubles Grand Slam twice, in 1963 with Ken Fletcher and 1965 with three different partners, Court is still the only woman to have won the 'triple crown' of singles, doubles and mixed at the same Grand Slam twice during her career (at the 1963 Australian Open and 1970 US Open). And her 11 Australian titles remains the record for a single Slam.
The Grand Slam That Nearly Wasn't
Raised in the town of Albury in country New South Wales, Court was the supreme exponent of the serve-and-volley style at a time when three of the four Slams were played on grass. And yet it took a couple of years for her to find her footing on the global stage. On that first trip to Wimbledon the seeding committee made Miss Smith the No.2 seed but she fell to Christine Truman in the quarters. The following year, having won at Roland Garros for the first time, she was top seed but stunned by a certain Billie Jean Moffitt in the first round.
Nonetheless Smith recovered to capture the first of five US crowns later that summer, and it was to be a case of third time lucky at Wimbledon the following year when she beat Billie Jean in the final. She reached the title match at the All England Club the next two years, sharing the spoils with her other great rival of the 1960s, graceful Brazilian Maria Bueno.
By the time she married international yachtsman Barry Court in 1967, and left the sport for 18 months, Court had surely written her name into the history books with 13 Grand Slam singles titles and four years voted the year-end No.1, from 1962-65. But the best was yet to come. When she made her comeback the Open Era was in full swing, and Court went on to win 92 singles titles (including 11 majors) and 48 doubles titles - despite taking more time out to have her first child in early 1972, and second child in 1974.
Even though Court had won three of the Big Four in 1969 and was in peak form by 1970, her Grand Slam sweep was full of drama. Having beaten Kerry Melville Reid in the Australian final, Court trailed Olga Morozova 63 52 in the final at Roland Garros but conjured a win despite leg cramps; at Wimbledon she hurt her ankle in the final against King, so rushed the net as much as possible and eventually prevailed, 1412, 119. Court completed the Slam with a three set defeat of Rosie Casals at Forest Hills - which she has described as the best moment of her career. It is notable that Court won 21 of 27 tournaments played that season - still the record title haul for a single year - for a 104-6 match record.
These were, of course, heady times for tennis behind the scenes as well, and try as she might the conservative Court couldn't keep completely out of the political fray.
On the one hand she had truly proved that a woman could "have it all". But Court has admitted to being naïve when Bobby Riggs challenged her to a 'Battle of the Sexes' match in 1973. Recognizing that Riggs was mostly interested in undermining the campaign for equality on the tennis Tour, King and Chris Evert had turned Riggs down - but Court accepted the challenge.
"I just thought, here is a man who has quite a big mouth," Court has said. The top-ranked player at the time (her win-loss percentage that year finished at .953) she fully expected to win. But the outcome would be dubbed the Mother's Day Massacre, with 55-year-old Riggs undermining Court's powerful rhythm by feeding her junk. His 62 61 win even provoked King to accept a rematch.
Putting the hoopla behind her, Court continued to collect titles and when the computerized ranking system was introduced at the end of 1975 she was still ranked a respectable No.6. But while she played intermittently for another couple of years, Court had her family and other priorities. Raised a Catholic, religion had become ever more important to her. She converted to the Pentecostal church, and after attending bible college in the 1980s the mother of four was ordained as a minister in 1991.
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