Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
Tennis phenom Serena Williams is arguably the world’s greatest athlete—not just in tennis but in all sports. But after being eliminated by Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round of the U.S. Open earlier this month, Williams’ career is now at an end.
Williams’ background and early achievements (she won her first Grand Slam title when she was just 17 years old) as well as her one-of-a-kind attitude set her apart from what’s considered to be the traditional path to tennis greatness. Her 23 Grand Slam titles are one short of the record set by Margaret Court from 1960-1973. But that “one shy” has become the center of a recent controversy involving Court in the aftermath of Williams’ retirement (or “evolving,” as she calls it).
In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Australian record-holder Margaret Court believes she’s often slighted by Williams and the rest of the tennis world for her achievements. What’s more, Court feels she’s overlooked because of her Christian beliefs and her opposition to same-sex marriage.
On paper, Court makes a compelling argument for why she’s a significantly more accomplished tennis player than Williams. Court still holds the Grand Slam singles title record (24). Williams even played seven more years than Court, retiring at 41 while Court retired in her early 30s after taking two years off to get married and have a baby. Court won three out of four Slams after her first baby, while Williams hasn’t won a Slam since the birth of her daughter Olympia (although I think it’s worth noting that Serena won while eight weeks pregnant with Olympia). As for the talent pool of Court’s era? She says she faced plenty of women in the top ten, including a couple of number one players at the time.
Court even believes playing in this modern era of tennis is easier than what she faced. “How I would love to have taken family or friends along with me,” she told The Telegraph. “But I couldn’t. I had to go on my own or with the national team. People don’t see all that.” She continued: “We didn’t have psychologists or coaches with us. It’s a whole different world. That’s what disappoints me—that players today don’t honor the past of the game.”
While I am admittedly partial to Williams because of what she and her sister overcame to achieve their status—specifically as African American women in a society that casts them at the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale—I can’t help but agree with Court. It is important to honor the past and the players who’ve paved the way for us to accomplish what we can today. I think Serena would also agree that Court deserves the credit for her achievements and what she’s accomplished for tennis.
(Likewise, if anyone were to understand the importance of honoring historical figures and feats, it should be believers who hinge all their faith on legends like Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and Jesus. We remember them because of how God used them as the foundation for His Kingdom, of which we are a part.)
However, context is critical. Plenty of high-profile Christians across multiple sports acknowledge God or Jesus in their public life, and they aren’t scorned simply for proclaiming their faith. It’s very likely that Court is rarely mentioned, not just because of her social views on same-sex marriage, but also because of her disregard for gay people as people. In 1990, she was critical of Martina Navratilova, not because of the latter’s tennis skill, but rather, because Navratilova is gay. Court regarded her as “a great player” but quickly added that she would “like someone at the top who the younger players can look up to. It’s very sad for children to be exposed to homosexuality.”
This forfeiture of Navratilova’s humanity and skill can be traced back to Court’s views on race. In 1970, Court supported apartheid. “South Africans have this thing better organized than any other country, particularly America,” she allegedly said. “I love South Africa. I’ll go back there any time.”
Both comments, but particularly the latter, provide some context and insight into Court’s ongoing criticism of Serena Williams. She quickly attacked Williams’ sportsmanship when she passionately disagreed with a line judge in 2011. Even in the aftermath of the fanfare celebrating the end of Williams’ career, Court criticized Williams for not acknowledging her opponent enough in the post-match interview. “I think it was bad that Williams didn’t mention her opponent more when she spoke,” Court said. “We were taught to honor our opponent. We respected one another.”
If life and death are in the power of the tongue, then Court seems to lean toward destruction than life with her comments—especially as they regard Serena. In a passive-aggressive manner, most of these comments are veiled with praise. “Serena, I’ve admired her as a player,” she told The Telegraph. “But I don’t think she has ever admired me.” As a professed believer and someone who has ministries named after her, Court’s brand of Christianity simply doesn’t gel with her convictions as a Christian.
If Margaret Court is true to her convictions (i.e., that she’s the best tennis player ever) as a Christian, then she doesn’t need to belittle Serena Williams’ accomplishments. Nor does she need the approval of men to validate her beliefs (Galatians 1:10, Matthew 10:14). Court’s nationalistic-style Christianity wants it both ways—the praise of men and the praise of God—when Jesus emphatically told believers to expect otherwise (Matthew 5:11-13, Luke 9:24-27). If Court were sincerely true to her convictions, then she ought to be rejoicing that she is being rejected, not complaining and demanding respect.
It’s important to recognize Margaret Court’s talents, but it’s easy to see why she’s been ignored by the tennis world. Perhaps it is simply because of her beliefs. But it might have more to do with her failure in recognizing the image of God imbued on everyone else outside of her fragile Christianity—even if they don’t acknowledge the God whose image they bear.
Court’s latest remarks about the world-beloved champion Serena Williams should remind us to love and live peaceably with all men, even if we feel slighted. We ought not to strive for the approval of men because we have the acceptance of God the Father through his son Jesus Christ, which enables us to live peaceably with all (Romans 12:18, Hebrews 12:14).