Tennis

Court's comments threaten 'Happy Slam'

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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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Maybe Margaret Court and Tim Tebow are the new millennium’s Muhammad Ali.

Let me explain. Now, even the "Happy Slam" in tennis is about to be overrun by political fights and protests. On the eve of the Australian Open, the year’s first major, tennis legend Margaret Court, now a pastor, is in a nasty fight with Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King over gay marriage. Protests are planned for Monday in and around Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne. Gay-rights activists are calling for a change of the stadium’s name.

Margaret Court

Court of controversy

Eleven-time Australian Open winner Margaret Court is still making headlines:

Tennis might be the one sport that has accepted people’s sexuality, even championed it in some ways. And now this?

Well, yes. In an uncomfortable turn to the mix of politics with fun and games, outspokenness in sports is now coming from the right, not the left. The right-wingers are now the risk-takers, risking public scorn.

“Politically correct education has masterfully escorted homosexuality out from behind closed doors, into the community openly, and now is aggressively demanding marriage rights that are not theirs to take,’’ Court said in an interview in The West Australian. “The fact that the homosexual cry is, `We can’t help it, as we were born this way,’ as the cause behind their own personal choice is cause for concern.’’

Court has also spoken strongly against gay marriage.

You are going to have to deal with it. I am not endorsing Court’s opinion – not at all – but people have a right to state their opinions.

Ali is now generally considered a hero, but back in the day? Ali now is seen as having stood up courageously for public good, but at the time he was heavily scorned and controversial.

For the most part, Tebow has meticulously avoided taking political stances, though he did make a Super Bowl commercial in 2010 for the anti-gay, anti-abortion group Focus On The Family. But, be honest: His openness with his faith has been interpreted in a much larger context:

Many liberals and conservatives see him as representing all things they are for or against.

So Bill Maher hates Tebow, mocks him. After Tebow had a bad game, Maher tweeted, “Wow, Jesus just (deleted) #Tim Tebow bad! And on Xmas Eve! Somewhere in hell Satan is tebowing…’’

Maher does that because he knows what’s underneath the love of Tebow, what the argument over him is really about. Even if it’s not what Tebow stands for, he represents right-wingers who want to stop gay marriage, abortion, etc.

That’s the fight. For so many people, it is even the base of whether they think he is a good quarterback or not.

And it’s not just Tebow. It is a climate, a new culture surrounding the politics in sports. Now, it’s playing out thousands of miles away from Tebow’s game against the New England Patriots on Saturday night.

My feelings tend to lean toward the right, though I believe marriage, love and sex are private issues, not the business of others.

But how prevalent is this left-right fight in sports? It is happening now in the least likely place in the least likely sport. In football and baseball, and most sports in the US, homosexuality is hidden. In tennis, there are openly gay athletes.

And the Australian Open? Roger Federer has called it the “Happy Slam’’ because of its relaxed atmosphere — in contrast to the open beat of tension throughout, say, the US Open. On the grounds in Melbourne, one area includes bands playing in front of bars and restaurants while fans relax on chaise lounges.

Now, a group has formed on Facebook, calling itself “Rainbow Flags Over Margaret Court Arena.’’ It is urging fans to display rainbow-colored gay pride banners at Margaret Court Arena.

Martina Navratilova, who is gay and has strongly represented the left, has told the Tennis Channel that it “seems to me a lot of people have evolved, as has the Bible. Unfortunately, Margaret Court has not . . . Her myopic view is truly frightening as well as damaging to the thousands of children already living in same-gender families.’’

2012 AUSTRALIAN Open

2012 Australian Open

Check out all the action from Melbourne Park.

And Billie Jean King said, “I respectfully disagree with Margaret’s position on gay marriage. We have to commit to eliminating homophobia because everyone is entitled to the same rights, opportunities and protection.’’

Tennis is rallying to fight Court. According to The Associated Press, Rennae Stubbs, an Australian doubles champion who has been open about her homosexuality, says that Court’s opinions “have leverage.’’ So she also is calling for some sign of solidarity. And Kerryn Phelps, an influential Australian gay spokeswoman, is calling for Tennis Australia to drop Court’s name from the stadium named for her. And Tennis Australia has issued a statement that Court’s playing days were “second to none’’ but that it doesn’t share her personal views.

A faction of women’s tennis has always resented Court. She won 24 singles majors, more than any other player in history. But she stands at odds with King and Navratilova, historical voices still considered part of the pillars of today’s game.

In 1973, Court lost to Bobby Riggs, a retired tennis champion in his mid-50s, who had said he could beat any woman. It was the beginning of “The Battle of Sexes.’’ Court was ranked No. 1, and Riggs crushed her.

And that was an embarrassing moment at a time when women’s rights activists were growing in voice. Even more at issue was that Court, thinking she was showing good manners, curtsied to Riggs afterward.

Well, that led to King’s famous victory over Riggs, which was a rallying moment for women’s rights, and also for girls in sports.

But this is a different era, and the fight has taken a different turn.

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