The present world news is limited to just one thing — Corona, Corona and Corona! The world of sports has been consigned to oblivion. Lockdown is the world order; however, some sporting events have been given the go ahead in some countries. Till the past few months, the sporting world has been so dynamic that one never gets a chance to look back into events and personalities that have lent various sports the mass following that they enjoy today. The suspension of sports around the world gives one the interval to reflect on some of the unforgettables of the various games.
Making no bones about it, cricket has been my all-time favourite among all types of games and sports so it would be quite natural for me to reflect upon names like Sir Gary Sobers or Don Bradman. If cricket wasn’t my favourite, other names that could surface would be perhaps Pele, Mohammad Ali, Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Bobby Fischer, Rod Laver, Major Dhayan Chand, Rudy Hartono, Mark Spitz and several such names. However, the name that surfaces to the zenith of my memory is that of a lady tennis player — Mrs Margaret Smith Court.
The prefix Mrs to her name has not been used without a cause. Mrs Margaret Court had a career that was punctuated by marriage and three childbirths and yet she holds several enviable records; a career that was equally glorious in the Open era of tennis as well as before with certain achievements that no male or female player has ever been able to emulate. Her achievements can never be erased from my student day memory; it was almost half a century ago but for me Mrs Margaret Court remains the greatest sports personality of all times.
Margaret Court (nee Smith) was born on 16 July 1942 at Albury, in New South Wales as the fourth child to Lawrence Smith and Catherine Smith. She took to tennis from the age of eight years and with a height of 5’9” emerged as a player of great strength and long reach. Her exceptional agility on the tennis court made her the toughest opponent for all her adversaries.
Margaret made her first Grand Slam appearance at the Australian Open, in 1959 where she suffered a second round loss to the ultimate women’s title winner of that year. She came back strongly the following year to win the Australian Open title which was the start of her eleven wins at that tournament; seven of which came in succession from 1960 to 1966. Incidentally, while Margaret won the 1960 ladies’ singles title at the Australian Open, she lost the final of the junior title in the same tournament.
In a career that stretched from 1959 to 1977 at the international level, Margaret took her first break from the international circuit, in 1966, when she got married. Her second break came in 1971 for the delivery of her first child, the third in 1974 for the birth of her second child and again in 1976 for the birth of her third child. In fact, when in 1977, Margaret withdrew from the quarter final of the Virginia Slims Championship, it was only because she learnt that she was pregnant for the fourth time.
Despite so many breaks in her career, Mrs Margaret Court holds the record for having won the maximum number of Grand Slam singles titles, totalling 24. While eleven of these came at the Australian Open, she won five each at the French Open and the US Open and three at the Wimbledon. Add to it her 19 women’s doubles titles and 21 mixed doubles titles and her Grand Slam titles add up to a total of 64 Grand Slam titles. Perhaps no further evidence is required to establish her position as the greatest ever player that took position on a tennis court.
Margaret Court is the first Australian woman to win the three other Grand Slam tournaments outside her home country. She was ranked the World No. 1 women’s player in 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1969, 1970 and 1973. She remains one among the only three women players that have won all the four Grand Slam titles in a single year. She achieved the rare distinction in 1970, while Maureen Connolly had performed the feat in 1953 and Steffi Graf in 1988. Thus, Margaret remains the first woman to achieve the distinction in the Open era.
However, Margaret’s achievements go beyond Maureen and Steffi as she remains the only player to have won all the four Grand Slam titles in a single year in both singles as well as in the mixed doubles. In fact, she did the latter twice; once in 1963 while partnering Ken Fletcher and with three different partners in 1965.
Only three women in the history of the game have achieved what no man has ever been able to perform on the tennis court and that is having won the singles, doubles and mixed doubles events at all the four Grand Slam tournaments. Here too, Margaret Court is a class apart as she is the only player to have achieved the distinction twice; once before the start of the Open era and once again in the Open era.
Mrs Margaret Court’s achievements on the tennis court can never ever be replicated as she established herself as the queen of the court in the Open era as well as in the years before it. If one single line ever summed up the greatness of a player, it would be best to quote what the International Tennis Hall of Fame has to say about Mrs Margaret Court, “For sheer strength of performance and accomplishment there has never been a tennis player to match her.”