The Case for Noble Wombat Arena

By Giri Nathan

Let’s say that you are a 77-year-old bigot whose historically unmatched sporting feats are to be celebrated at a 50th-anniversary event in your home country. (I hope this requires a leap of the imagination along at least one axis.) My advice to you—cynical though it may seem to a sincere, fullhearted hater—would be to keep that bigotry in your mouth for just a few months leading up to the big day. It might be hard. But it’s okay. We’ll take your word that you still don’t care for gay people. We just don’t need all the steady reminders. It’s making all the event-planning way too complicated.

Margaret Court, who notched a calendar Grand Slam in 1970 and will be celebrated for it at this Australian Open, could not stomach this advice. These days the 24-time major winner is a minister at a church in Perth, where, presumably, she has a vast range of options when it comes to subject matter in her sermons. But last month she couldn’t resist returning to that familiar, favorite territory. “Because we are living in a season, even that LGBT and the schools—it’s of the devil, it’s not of God…,” Court muttered during an ambiguously peeved sermon in late December, which also took issue with the existence of trans children, athletes, and people generally. You could have talked about anything, Margaret. Then again, this is the lady who in 1970 went out of her way to praise apartheid—“South Africans have this thing better organised than any other country, particularly America”—who in 2017 complained that the sport was “full of lesbians,” and who seems to believe, above all, in never being pried away from her own hate. “Hold on to your beliefs, no matter how unpopular, no matter if saying your piece is going to get you in trouble,” she once said, making me wonder why conviction per se is hailed as a virtue, when it is so often aimed toward ugly ends.

That conviction has meant headaches for Tennis Australia, the governing body of the Australian Open, which is figuring out how to honor Court while voicing their reservations in the sterile, conviction-free language of PR. In late November they let out a damage-control open letter, noting that “it is common practice to draw a distinction between recognising champions and celebrating heroes, and it is an important distinction.” Court has vigorously confirmed that distinction with her comments since that letter. Last week, Tennis Australia said that Court would not present the trophy to the women’s singles champion, which she has done several times in the past. Tennis Australia finds itself in the awkward business of trying to marginalize a person that tennis in Australia has chosen to center.

Because for now, the fact remains that many of the world’s best players may have to walk onto a court named after a woman who more or less sees them as a social ill. Melbourne Park still boasts a Margaret Court Arena, some 33 years and plenty of bile later. We don’t often frame the preservation of the status quo as a decision, but it is. The choice to keep that name around is a choice, just as it is Court’s choice to keep venting her frustration with an ever-so-slightly less oppressed world. And the standards of tennis competition have evolved even faster than the standards of basic decency. It’s not clear why winning 24 major titles—in an era where as few as 43 competitors entered the Australian Open draw, and many top players didn’t bother to schlep down under—should guarantee naming rights in perpetuity. Steffi Graf’s 22 seemed to be the real marker that Serena Williams chased, and passed. While Serena would “tie” Court with one more, somehow I doubt that tie will be taken too seriously by a sane observer.

Without getting too grim and actuarial up in here, odds suggest that a 50th anniversary might just be the last time one is ever entitled to the public eye. What if Melbourne Park treated Court’s last bit of obligatory relevance as an opportunity to reset, to rename? There’s a fresh new decade ahead, one in which Australia is likely to thrive: They claim the world’s top player in Ashleigh Barty, who is exactly as endearing as Court isn’t, and Alex de Minaur is busy setting land speed records on hard court. Tennis in Australia has every reason to look ahead, and away from Margaret Court. Name the court literally anything else. Name it for the marsupials who’ve perished in these apocalyptic fires, and who are unlikely to be canceled for their bigotry. We’re already committed to seeing an awful name everywhere for the next fortnight, but in 2021 I better be watching the action on Noble Wombat Arena.

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