It was never really only about the tennis. Not really. For many of us it was always also about everything else. There can be no normality in sport in an abnormal society. And we who grew up in a supremely abnormal society, a place of such absurd and fantastic craziness it was positively dystopian, sport always had political dimensions.
The place we lived in over-determined who had playing fields, and who did not. Politicians and those who supported them, and those who benefited from that arrangement, decided who got to play at which level in which sports. These were not questions determined by talent alone. In colonial and apartheid South Africa, this was decided on the ugly false science of race, and in support of a vulgar articulation of what pretended to be Christian nationalism.
We are told we have come a long way since then. Now, we are told, sport ought to be sport, and we should let the players get on with it. The playing field, is after all, supposed to be level in post-apartheid South Africa. Such blindness, such wilful ignorance, such convenient erasure of history and its effects into the present. How convenient for old beneficiaries and their fellow apologists, how unfortunate for the rest.
This week Martina Navratilova penned an open letter in which she reflected on the ineluctable and permanent link between sport and politics (in the sense of matters for the polis). Navratilova is undeniably among the top athletes of the twentieth century, and is no stranger to the confluence of politics and sport. She had to defect from Czechoslovakia (a country which no longer exists) early in life, leaving behind family and old connections to pursue the game she loved. She fought homophobic prejudice across much of her long and formidable career at the top of her sport. And she also fought the political battle of getting full recognition of the achievements for women in tennis.
But this week she stepped out and took on the political remarks of the woman whose name is associated with the most important record in the sport: Margaret Court, and her 24 ‘Grand Slam’ singles titles. So formidable is Court’s achievement that it remains the mark against which Serena Williams’s ‘greatest of all time’ critics measure her. An arena at the Australian Open premises in Melbourne is named for Court. But all this has become secondary because she aired her views on sexuality.
Some may ask what the relationship between tennis and sexuality could possibly be. Ostensibly, at first, nothing. Except: Martina Navratilova’s career and life. And Court’s views would not be extraordinary for a woman of her age, except she is the holder of a formidable record, and her public statements have consequences. It is these very consequences which Navratilova reminded us of. And she, of all people, is infinitely well-placed to speak to us of them. She survives them.
Navratilova has been an inspiration to many of us. I was eight years old, watching her on television, and in the post-match interview her Czech inflected English signalled her outsider status in a sport she would dominate for the next decade. As the 1980s passed, Navratilova’s position at the top of the game did not seem to mitigate her outsider status. As a teen even I could pick up the grudging admiration of commentators, and the prejudices of the adults around me when they spoke of her.
Homophobia has no place in sport. Ben Cohen, the former rugby player who represented England in their World Cup victory, has made it a component of his post-playing life and career. James Haskell, another English rugby player currently on tour with the British Lions in New Zealand has done similar work against homophobia in sport. In his own small way, even Cesc Fàbregas once acceded to a reporter’s request for an on-camera kiss.
All three of these figures, of course, are heterosexual men, who could signal no discomfort around homosexuality. That in itself is a step in the right direction. And Pete Sampras was another such figure whose position at the height of his success on the immateriality of sexuality in assessing talent and approaching the sport was a departure from the hyper-macho and heteronormative postures of many of his contemporaries, and of the homophobia of some of the tennis commentary at the time.
But Navratilova stands head and shoulders above the rest. And in criticising Court for her allegation that older lesbians have a predatory approach on the tennis circuit, and her statements about the Australian airline executive’s views on gay marriage, Navratilova once more reminded us that there are children watching. Navratilova watched Billie Jean King. Seles watched Navratilova (who later reached out to and fought for her in the wake of her stabbing in Germany); Venus and Serena Williams watched Seles; Madison Keys watched Venus Williams: representation matters, visibility is important, especially if you’re an outsider, and not in the mechanistic ways Court insists on.
Without Martina, the road for Amélie Mauresmo would probably have been even more difficult. And we may well want to recall the responses of other top players at the time to her announcement in the late 1990s. And let’s remember her role in the career of Andy Murray. Only connect.
Navratilova is correct: Court is a great tennis player, but her politics are appalling. She is wrong-headed in her beliefs about sexuality and tennis, and if she wishes to air them in public, she must accept the consequences. Young LGBTQI people who look to tennis as a way of expressing themselves ought not to have to deal with the fear-mongering of a septuagenarian who ought to know better. Young women in tennis face more frightening issues of abuse than older lesbian players. We in South Africa know this only too well. And Court’s views on apartheid South Africa ought to shake up some of our certitudes.
Sport is political, there is no use denying it: who plays, where, and at what cost to themselves are all matters inextricable from the organisation of power and status in society. Let’s make the politics progressive, at the very least, and not exclude people or marginalise them based on who they find desirable. And if Ms Court cannot learn that the world is different from how she supposes it is, perhaps players ought not to suffer the indignity of having to play in a space named for someone who does not believe in their full humanity, and in their right to express that humanity in ways which do her no harm. It is not only about the tennis, after all. It’s about the full human dignity of those who play it.