Margaret Smith Court
Court, Margaret Smith
Australian tennis player
Australian Margaret Smith Court was a dominant woman's tennis player in the 1960s and early 1970s. Over the course of her career, she won a total of sixty-two Grand Slam women's singles events, more than anyone in the history of women's tennis, and seventy-nine total singles titles. The first Australian to win Wimbledon, Court won the second Grand Slam in women's singles in 1970. (Maureen Connolly did it in 1953, when it was an all amateur affair). Court also won mixed doubles Grand Slam in 1963. She was the only player to win a Grand Slam in both singles and in doubles. In the days before big prize money, however, Court only earned about a half million dollars for her professional victories.
Court's amazing success led to her becoming the first female tennis player from Australia who had a following. She was known for her great fitness, athleticism, and endurance, and had a game that featured a dominant fore-hand, good volleying skills, and an attacking style of play. Though her game spoke volumes, Court herself was somewhat media shy and she did not really seek publicity. As Bud Collins and Zander Hollander wrote in Bud Collins'
Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis, "For sheer strength of performance and accomplishment there has never been a tennis player to match Margaret Smith Court."
Court's background was not indicative of her future success. Born on July 16, 1942, in Albury, New South Wales, Australia, she was the youngest of four children born into a working class family. Her father worked in a cheese and butter processing plant as a foreman. No one in her family was interested or played the game of tennis (though two siblings were competitive cyclists), though they lived opposite Border Tennis Association.
Early Interest in Tennis
When Court was a child, about age eight or so, she would sneak into the club using empty courts. Her first racquet was a used piece of equipment given to her by a neighbor. She, sometimes with other children in the neighborhood, would play on the courts until they were kicked out. This happened repeatedly until Court was about ten years old.
By that time, Wally Rutter, the owner of the club (or janitor according to some sources), gave Court a membership and tennis lessons. He and his wife had no children, and gave the young self-motivated athlete what her parents could not. When she became old enough, Court also worked there part time to earn her court time.
Even at an early age, Court showed promise as a tennis player. She could hit harder than any girl, and repeatedly won many tournaments for her age groups. Tennis was not her only focus. She often played sports with boys, including cricket and soccer, as well as basketball and softball.
Court was not only a gifted tennis player, but a track star in the 400 meter and 800 meter races. As a teenager, she was in training to be on the Australian Olympic team for the 400 meter and 800 meter races, but gave them up because she believed that the training was negatively affected her tennis game. By the time she was fifteen, had won sixty trophies for tennis.
Trained in Melbourne
By the time Court was in her late teens, Rutter and the local coaches believed that she needed better training. To that end, they contacted world champion Frank Sedgman who had a club in Melbourne, Australia. With her parents' approval, Court moved there and began training with him and other members of his staff. To pay for the training, she worked as a receptionist for the squash courts and gymnasium.
Sedgman and his group gave Court a wide-range of training experiences. Stan Nicholls worked with her inherent athletic ability to give her more fitness than had often been seen in female athletes of the time. Coach Keith Rogers helped her with her strokes. Sedgman worked on tactics and the game as a whole.
The tennis game Court and her coaches developed relied on her athleticism. She had strong volleying abilities, in part because of her childhood days playing with boys. She also played an attacking game that relied on her serve and volley, only using ground strokes when needed. She had a great serve, which she worked on, as well as endurance. The most unusual aspect of the game they developed was playing tennis right-handed, though she was left-handed, something done to a number of lefties in this era.
When Court was seventeen years old, she lost in the finals of the Australian Junior Open Championship, but she also made the finals of the main draw, the Australian Open. Thus, Court won her first Grand Slam (defeating Jan Lehane) when she was only seventeen years and six months old. She was the youngest to ever win the Australian Open.
Court was still an amateur, and though she could have gone to Europe and played on the women's tennis circuit, she did not think she had the stamina nor the speed yet. After winning in the Australian Open, she played in New Zealand and did not do well. For the next year, she worked harder in her training and learned how to deal with the press despite her shyness.
In 1961, Court won her second Australian Open, against defeating Lehane. She also won the women's doubles championship there. After the victory, Court turned professional, and was able to travel abroad for the first time. She did not go alone or with her family, but with several other Australian women tennis players under the captaincy of Nell Hopman.
In her first year, Court did not do exceptionally well. Though she won the Kent All-Comers Championship, defeating Ann Haydon, she also lost in the quarterfinals of the French Open and Wimbledon. She suffered from nervousness and was not prepared. She also had problems with the schedule and the rules Hopman dictated. The following year, Court refused to travel with them in the 1962 season. Instead, she traveled with an American player and had two friends serve as chaperones. This situation created tension with the official Australian team, but led to more victories for Court.
|1942||Born July 16 in Albury, New South Wales, Australia|
|1961||Becomes professional tennis player|
|1966-68||Briefly retires as professional tennis player|
|1967||Marries Barry Court on October 28|
|1968||Returns to professional tennis|
|1971-72||Misses parts of seasons to have child|
|1977||Retires as a professional tennis player|
|1991||Ordained as a minister|
Related Biography: Coach Frank Sedgman
The coach who had arguably the most influence on Court's development as a young player was Frank Sedgman. Sedgman had had a great playing career of his own in the 1940s and 1950s, when events were all amateur. He was a great volleyer with a strong forehand. He won a number of Grand Slam Events, including the Australian Open men's singles titles in 1949-50 and doubles in 1951-52, Wimbledon singles in 1952 and doubles in 1948, 1951, and 1952, the U.S. Open singles in 1951-52 and doubles in 1950-51, and the French Open doubles in 1951-52. He also represented Australia in Davis Cup play from 1949-52, leading his country to victory over the United States in 1950. Sedgman played professional tennis in the 1950s and 1960s, and played on a Grand Masters (senior) tour in the 1970s. He was inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1979.
In 1962, Court won both the women's singles and doubles championship at the Australian Open, the women's singles title at the French Open, and the women's singles and mixed doubles title at the U.S. Open. Her only failure came at Wimbledon where she lost in the first round to Billie Jean Moffitt (later known as Billie Jean King ). This was the first year that Court was ranked the number one player in the world. (Court was ranked number one in 1963-65, 1969-70, and 1973.).
Won Mixed Doubles Grand Slam
In 1963, Court avenged her loss to King at Wimbledon, defeating her for the victory. This was the first time an Australian won the tournament. King became Court's main rival throughout her career, and whenever Court was not ranked number one, King was. While Court also won women's singles at the Australian Open in 1963 and was the number one ranked woman, the year was important because she completed a Grand Slam in mixed doubles with Ken Fletcher. They won the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens as well as Wimbledon in one calendar year.
Despite her tensions with the other Australian players, Court was emerging as a dominant force. To that end, she agreed to begin playing for Australia in Federation Cup play in 1963. Though Australia lost to the United States in the final round that year, Court helped Australia win the Fed Cup in 1964, 1965, 1968, and 1971.
In the mid-1960s, Court continued to win multiple Grand Slam championships in women's singles and doubles as well as mixed doubles. She repeated her victory at Wimbledon in 1965, defeating rival King, as well as at the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, but lost in the finals of the French Open to Lesley Turner.
Retired Briefly from Tennis
After reaching the finals of women's singles and winning the mixed doubles tournament at Wimbledon in 1966, Court decided to retire. For the previous year or two, she had become bored by tennis, the practice, and the travel. Court had won everything and found she no longer needed to compete. Instead she decided to make up for the fun she missed as a teenager.
Court returned home to Western Australia. She lived in Perth with a friend and opened a boutique named Peephole. Tennis was the furthest thing from her mind, though she did learn how to play squash. She also was married to Barry Court, a wealthy wool broker, yachtsman, whose father was a politician, in 1967, and became known Margaret Smith Court.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1960||Women's singles championship at Australian Open—youngest woman to win title|
|1961||Women's singles championship and women's doubles championship at Australian Open; mixed doubles championship at U.S. Open; Kent All-Comers Championship|
|1962||Women's singles championship and mixed doubles championship at U.S. Open; women's singles championship at French Open; women's singles championship and women's doubles championship at Australian Open|
|1963||Women's singles championship at Wimbledon; women's singles championship and women's doubles championship at Australian Open; women's double championship at U.S. Open; mixed doubles Grand Slam (with Ken Fletcher)|
|1963-65, 1969-70, 1973||Ranked number one in world|
|1964||Women's singles championship, women's doubles championship, and mixed doubles championship at French Open; women's singles championship and mixed doubles championship at Australian Open; mixed doubles championship at U.S. Open; women's double championship at Wimbledon; helped Australia win Federation Cup|
|1965||Women's singles championship, women's doubles championship, and mixed doubles championship at Wimbledon; women's singles championship and mixed doubles championship at U.S. Open; women's singles championship and women's doubles championship at Australian Open; women's doubles championship and mixed doubles championship at French Open; helped Australia win Federation Cup|
|1966||Women's singles championship at Australian Open; women's doubles championship at French Open; mixed doubles championship at Wimbledon|
|1968||Women's double championship at U.S. Open; mixed doubles championship at Wimbledon; helped Australia win Federation Cup|
|1969||Women's singles championship and mixed doubles championship at U.S. Open; women's singles championship and mixed doubles championship at French Open; women's singles championship and women's doubles championship at Australian Open; women's doubles championship at Wimbledon|
|1970||Women's singles championship at Wimbledon; women's singles championship, women's double championship, and mixed doubles championship at U.S. Open; women's singles championship at French Open; women's double championship at Australian Open|
|1971||Women's singles championship and women's doubles championship at Australian Open; helped Australia win Federation Cup|
|1972||Mixed doubles championship at U.S. Open|
|1973||Women's singles championship and women's double championship at U.S. Open; women's singles championship and women's double championship at French Open; women's singles championship and women's doubles championship at Australian Open|
|1975||U.S. Open doubles championship; mixed doubles championship at Wimbledon|
|1979||Inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame|
|1986||Inducted into the Women's Sports Hall of Fame|
Where Is She Now?
After her retirement, Court was not actively involved with the game, though she worked with junior tennis in Western Australia. Instead, she focused on raising her four children (three sons and one daughter) with husband Barry Court. Religion was also important to Court. Raised Roman Catholic, she became extremely spiritual late in her playing career. In 1991, Court became an ordained Christian minister and started her own mobile ministry, Margaret Court Ministries, Inc. By that time, Court had been working in ministry for seventeen years. She later founded the Victory Life Church in Perth, Australia. While she occasionally coached children from her church, Court herself did not play tennis.
Returned to Professional Tennis
It was Court's husband who sparked her interest in returning to tennis. She wanted to show him her life in tennis around the world. Court began training hard and returned to the circuit in 1968. Though it took a while for her to regain her form, Court was not as nervous as she had been in the first part of her career. She did not win a singles title until 1969, when she won the Australian, U.S., and French Opens, but lost Wimbledon in the finals to Ann Jones.
The best year of Court's career came in 1970, when she won the women's singles titles in all four Grand Slam events and eighteen of twenty-five tournaments she entered. She was only the second woman ever to win the women's singles Grand Slam. The hardest victory was Wimbledon, where she again faced King in the finals. Court injured her ankle in her quarterfinal match against Helga Niessen, and suffered through the semifinals to make the finals. The final match lasted a record forty-six games and 148 minutes with Court winning 14-12, 11-9. Court was not the only one in pain; King had cramps too. Observers later believed that this was one of the best matches played by two women ever. Nerves became an issue at the last tournament in the slam, the U.S. Open. She defeated Rosemary Casals , 6-2, 2-6, 6-1.
Though Court remained dedicated to her tennis career. She missed parts of the 1971 and 1972 season because she had a baby, but returned in late 1972 to win the mixed doubles championship at the U.S. Open. While she won both women's singles and doubles championships at the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens in 1973, that year she made what she considered a big mistake in her career.
Lost Battle of the Sexes
In 1973, Court accepted the challenge to play male tennis player Bobby Riggs. King had already turned him down. Riggs, who was fifty-five years old at the time, had won Wimbledon in 1939 and believed that any male tennis player could beat the best woman tennis player in the world because men were superior to women. The match was a television event that would benefit charity.
Court agreed to play Riggs because she did not believe King was the best player of the time. However, she did not take the match seriously, was ill-prepared for the kind of game Riggs played, and lost badly 6-2, 6-1. She was not sure why she lost. She later told Jon Henderson of the Observer, "I wasn't ready for the showbiz side of it 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 loss was embarrassing, though King later beat Riggs.
Despite the Riggs fiasco, 1973 turned out to be the last best year of Court's career. She won eighteen of twenty-five tournaments she entered. Her last victory in a Grand Slam event came in 1975, when she won the U.S. Open doubles championship. When she became pregnant with her third child in 1977, Court decided to permanently retire from professional tennis.
Over the course of their rivalry, Court won twenty-two of thirty-two matches against King, who nicknamed her "The Arm." She might have won more championships overall if she had not had her problem with nerves. As Gwilym S. Brown wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1970, of Court's strong tennis game, "It is powerful, destructive, relentless and seemingly without a flaw. Definitely not on the sweet side. She is a superbly athletic animal, the physical equal of a great many men, but determination is really Margaret Court's chief trademark. For almost 10 years … this passion to excel has made her the dominating figure in women's tennis."
Address: c/o Victory Life Centre, PO Box 20, Osborne Park, Western Australia 6917 Australia; c/o Margaret Court Ministries, 37 Florence Rd., Nedlands, Western Australia 6009 Australia.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY COURT:
(With Don Lawrence) The Margaret Smith Story, as Told to Don Lawrence, S. Paul, 1965.
(With George McGunn) Court on Court, a Life in Tennis, Dodd, Mead, 1975.
Arnold, John, and Deidre Morris, eds. Monash Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Australia. Reed Reference Publishing, 1994.
Athletes and Coaches of Summer. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000.
Christensen, Karen, et al., eds. International Encyclopedia of Women and Sports. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2001.
Collins, Bud, and Zander Hollander, eds. Bud Collins' Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis. Detroit: Gale, 1992.
Davidson, Owen, and C. M. Jones. Great Women Tennis Players. Pelham Books, 1971.
Johnson, Anne Janette. Great Women in Sports. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Parry, Melanie, ed. Chambers Biographical Dictionary. Chambers, 1997.
Brown, Gwilym S. "Fierce lass in quest of an elusive title." Sports Illustrated (September 14, 1970): 94.
"A powerful athlete subject to jitters." Agence France Presse (December 6, 1999).
"Youngest female grand slam champions." USA Today (June 11, 1990): 7C.
"Frank Sedgman." International Tennis Hall of Fame. http://www.tennisfame.org/enshrinees/frank_sedgman.html (January 5, 2003).
"Margaret Court." http://www.aftour10s.com/aftour10s%20web/archives/margaret_court (January 1, 2003).
"Margaret Smith Court, 1979 Enshrinee: International Tennis Hall of Fame." International Tennis Hall of Fame. http://www.tennisfame.org/enshrinees/margaret_smith.html (January 1, 2003).
"Who2 Profile: Margaret Smith Court." Who2. http://www.who2.com/margaretsmithcourt.html (January 1, 2003).
"Word of God is holding Court." Guardian.com. http://www.guardian.co.uk/Print/0,3858,4036131,00.html (January 1, 2003).
Sketch by A. Petruso