OLIVER HOLT: Not even Margaret Court’s tainted legacy can stop her being the greatest of all time

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It is nearly five years since I went to visit Margaret Court at the Victory Life Centre she founded in Perth, Western Australia. 

For half an hour, I listened to Pastor Margaret preach to her adoring congregation and later she talked to me about prayer, Christianity, her attitude to same-sex marriage and three S-words: scriptures, sin and Serena.

It was December 2017 and Serena Williams, who had nearly died in childbirth earlier in the year, was expected to compete in the Australian Open the following month, with the aim of drawing level with Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. 

Serena Williams is still chasing down the record of 24 Grand Slam women’s singles titles

Margaret Court (pictured) still hold the record of Grand Slam singles win among women

Margaret Court (pictured) still hold the record of Grand Slam singles win among women

Many already regarded Williams as the greatest women’s player of all time anyway and the view was that another triumph for her in Melbourne would confirm it.

Williams did not play in Melbourne that year in the end but Court, who won 62 Grand Slam titles in all, including multiple victories in ladies’ doubles and mixed doubles, gave the impression that she did not relish being written out of the record books. 

She was not particularly gracious about Williams’ quest. ‘I don’t lose any sleep over her chasing my records,’ she said. ‘I don’t think anybody will break the 62, but the 24 will probably go.’

As it happens, the 24 probably won’t go. Not in the women’s game anyway. Not for a while. 

When Williams played her first singles match for a year, at Wimbledon last week, she was beaten in three sets in the first round by Harmony Tan, a French player ranked 115 in the world. 

Williams was beaten in three sets in the first round at Wimbledon by Harmony Tan (pictured)

Williams was beaten in three sets in the first round at Wimbledon by Harmony Tan (pictured)

It was a compelling, rollercoaster of a match but Williams came up short.

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Afterwards, she did not say whether she would play Wimbledon again. She did suggest she would like to play the US Open this summer but the days have gone when she was so dominant that, when she turned up to a tournament, it was expected she would win. 

She is 40 now. She’s a mum and a businesswoman, a campaigner, an activist, an icon. The game has moved on without her and she has moved on without the game.

Even with a competitor as fearsome as Williams, it is fairly safe to say that she will never win No24. That time has passed.

Ash Barty may have retired unexpectedly last year but there is too much talent out there to give Williams much of a chance of one last hurrah.

And because her defeat by Tan came close to drawing a line under her top-line career in the sport, it reopened the debate about where she sits in the pantheon. 

The greatest ever in the women’s game? Or the greatest ever in the game altogether? Williams has, after all, won more Grand Slam singles titles than any of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. 

Williams has won more Grand Slam singles titles than any of Roger Federer (pictured, left), Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (pictured, right)

Williams has won more Grand Slam singles titles than any of Roger Federer (pictured, left), Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (pictured, right)

Debates about the greatest in any sport are endlessly entangled because there is no correct answer.

Statistics go some of the way to proving a point but not the whole way. Statistics alone give Cristiano Ronaldo a shot at being the greatest footballer of all time but, even though he is a magnificent player, he wouldn’t be in my top 10. He wouldn’t even be my greatest player called Ronaldo.

Debates about the greatest inevitably favour current or recent players. More people will rush to anoint Lionel Messi the greatest in men’s football because we have seen his genius on our televisions twice a week for the past 20 years and his genius rarely seemed to dull. 

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Pele’s qualities, though, have faded in the memory. The same goes, even more so, for Ferenc Puskas.

When I was in Brazil last month, Zico told me that Garrincha would be in his top five players of all time and yet Garrincha has all but disappeared from the public mind, in Europe especially. 

Statistics alone give Cristiano Ronaldo a shot at being the greatest footballer of all time

Statistics alone give Cristiano Ronaldo a shot at being the greatest footballer of all time

The passage of half a century can do that. My top five, in no particular order, would be Pele, Diego Maradona, Messi, Johan Cruyff and Zinedine Zidane. In men’s tennis, the numbers favour Nadal but I will always argue Federer is the greatest of all time. 

There is also an argument for Rod Laver, whose achievements in the late Sixties have also become a victim of time’s caress. 

For all the greatness of this era’s big three, none of them have won the Calendar Slam. Laver did it twice. Nadal is halfway to joining him this year.

So I understand the desire to declare Williams the greatest in her sport, particularly now that she stands on the cusp of retirement. 

Her rise out of Compton, in South Central Los Angeles, is one of the most inspiring against-all-odds stories in sporting history and now that many of Court’s views have attracted so much opprobrium, the desire to bump the Australian off the summit has a powerful pull.

Williams will undoubtedly go down as one of the greats when she does retire from tennis

Williams will undoubtedly go down as one of the greats when she does retire from tennis

But the inconvenient truth is that Court’s claim to being the greatest is not that easily dislodged, whatever you have come to think of her. 

Her remarkable run of victories began before the Open era started in 1968 but was barely slowed by its onset (she won the Calendar Slam in 1970). 

She won a slew of titles at the Australian Open, her home event, sure, but she did not win it as many times as Nadal has won the French Open.

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She won the French Open more times than Serena, too and for all those pointing out, correctly, that Williams showed almost superhuman desire and commitment and talent to reach four Grand Slam finals after the birth of her daughter, Olympia, it is also worth remembering that Court won three Grand Slams after the birth of her eldest son, Daniel.

The inconvenient truth is that Margaret Court's claim to being the greatest is not that easily dislodged

The inconvenient truth is that Margaret Court’s claim to being the greatest is not that easily dislodged

Court, like Steffi Graf and Maureen Connolly, also won the Calendar Slam of all four major tournaments in a year, a feat that eluded Williams and other greats of the game like Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King. 

And that is before we mention the 38 Grand Slam ladies’ doubles and mixed doubles titles Court won.

Graf and Navratilova are my favourite players but that is a product of my age. Court’s legacy may have been tainted by her bigotry but does that mean she was not the greatest tennis player ever? Some want to try to reinterpret history because of the person Court has become. 

Perhaps it is enough to say Williams is the greatest you can acclaim with a clear conscience. Beyond that, in the women’s game, the crown still belongs to Court.

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