Born: July 16, 1942
in Albury, Australia
There’s no better or more appropriate word to describe Margaret Smith Court’s assault on worldwide tennis courts.
It can be debated, with plenty of supportive reference material, that no athlete – male or female – has so thoroughly dominated their sport like Court, certainly not in tennis. Her name is plastered throughout the record books, some of her accomplishments needing a second read to make sure they’re not a typographical error. From 1960 until 1975, Court won a record 24 major singles titles, best in history, regardless of gender. Court tacked on 21 major titles in mixed doubles and another 19 in doubles, pushing her total to a mind-boggling 64 major championships. By comparison, Martina Navratilova earned 59 major titles in her glorious career and all-time male leader Roy Emerson won 28. In 1970, she became the second female in history to win a calendar year Grand Slam (first in the Open Era), joining Maureen Connolly, who was the inaugural titlist in 1953. Steffi Graf became only the third female Grand Slam winner in 1988. On three occasions, in 1965, 1969, and 1973, Court won three of the four major events she played.
Court’s career spanned both amateur and professional eras, amassing a 1,180-107 record – the most in history – which equates to a remarkable 92 percent winning mark. When the Open Era commenced in 1968, Court compiled a 593-56 record and won at the same uncanny clip. She was a buzz saw with the sharpest blades, winning 24 of her major titles in 29 opportunities (83 percent). She went 11-of-12 in championship matches in the Open Era (92 percent), when the competition and stakes were ratcheted up considerably higher.
Court is one of only five players in tennis history, joining Navratilova, Serena Williams, Emerson, and Frank Sedgman, to win a career Grand Slam in two categories, and she stands alone as the only player in history to win three calendar-year Grand Slams (one in singles, two in mixed doubles). Court won singles, doubles, and mixed doubles championships at all four majors (a career boxed-set), and only Navratilova and Doris Hart can claim the same, but Court won all 12 majors at least twice. No one in history has come remotely close to that record.
An astonishing 40 of her major championships came in doubles, the coup de grace coming in 1963 when she teamed with fellow Aussie Ken Fletcher to win the mixed doubles Grand Slam. In 1965 she became the only player in history to win a mixed doubles Grand Slam twice, winning the French and Wimbledon with Fletcher, the Australian with John Newcombe and the U.S. Nationals with Fred Stolle. Court’s 40 doubles and mixed doubles titles were enormous accomplishments, winning 11 at the Australian, eight at the French, seven at Wimbledon, and 12 the U.S. Nationals/US Open (The Australian doubles titles in 1965 and 1969 were shared due to inclement weather postponing the final).
Court was born in Albury, New South Wales, Australia and won 23 of her 64 majors at the Australian Nationals/Open. In 1960, when she was 17, Court won the first of seven consecutive Australian championships (1960-66) and 11 overall (1969, 1970-71, 1973). She was a different breed of tennis player, placing paramount importance on fitness training, a discipline instilled into her from her coach Stan Nicholls. Court, who was nicknamed the “Aussie Amazon,” was perhaps the fittest player on tour, her strength and endurance buoyed by weight, circuit, and cardio training and running sand hills. Her physical advantage enabled her to overpower her opponent in a relentless serve-and-volley game. Court’s reach at net was all-encompassing, prompting Billie Jean King to tab her “The Arm.” Court had a powerful serve, using all of her body parts effectively – employing a strong knee bend and a smooth arm rotation. Her supreme fitness enabled her to return to competitive tennis on three occasions after having children. After her third child was born in 1975, Court’s career had only two years remaining. She shares the record for the most major titles by a mother with Belgium’s Kim Clijsters.
Court won 13 major singles titles as an amateur, defeating fellow Aussie Jan Lehane O’Neill four times, Maria Bueno three times, Lesley Turner Bowrey twice, Billie Jean Moffitt/King twice, and Darlene Hard and Nancy Richey once each. In those 13 championships, Court swept her opponent eight times, three went the distance, one came when her opponent retired (Bueno at the 1965 Australian when down 5-2 in the third), and one was in a walkover (Richey at the 1966 Australian). In her 11 Open Era titles, she upended eight different opponents, including Evonne Goolagong Cawley three times. Only Goolagong Cawley defeated Court in a major final, winning the 1971 Wimbledon Ladies Championship in three sets. “After I defeated Margaret Court at Wimbledon in 1971, I found out later she was pregnant and I thought, ‘so that’s why she played so badly,’” Goolagong joked.
Court won more than 100 matches five times in her career, but the pinnacle came in 1970 when she won 21 of 27 tournaments and 104 of 110 matches en route to winning the Grand Slam. She was particularly punishing that year, losing just 13 games at the Australian Open in six matches and rolling through fellow Aussie Kerry Melville, 6-3, 6-1, to win the first leg. The French Open was slightly more difficult, just one potential stumbling block in the second round when Russian Olga Morozova pushed Court to three sets, including 6-6 in the second, before the No. 1 seed prevailed, 3-6, 8-6, 6-1. Come the semifinals and finals, Court lost eight total games in defeating Julie Heldman, 6-0, 6-2, and West German Helga Niessen, 6-2, 6-4, for the second leg. The Wimbledon Ladies Singles final featured No. 1 Court against No. 2 King, and the match was as competitive as any final Court had played in thus far. She earned the third leg of her Grand Slam, but it wasn’t a cakewalk, 14-12, 11-9. The US Open was the last major in Court’s path, and though she lost only 13 games in her five matches leading to the championship match against No. 2 seed Rosie Casals, the final went three sets.
Against Casals, Court displayed a range of shots that complimented her serve and volley technique. Her lob was particularly proficient that afternoon before a capacity crowd hopeful to witness tennis history. The match was tied a one set apiece, but in the third, Court executed her serve, approach shots, net play, lob, and overhead to perfection and cruised to victory, 6-2, 2-6, 6-1. When Casals’s forehand went wide and Court had etched her name in the record books, there was no triumphant tossing of the racquet or leaping the net or falling the court in disbelief. Court methodically and calmly walked to the net and shook Casals’s hand. She retreated to her seat courtside $7,500 richer – which was the biggest monetary prize in women’s tennis at the time – and had become a calendar year Grand Slam champion, fulfilling a dream long in the making. Court was calm, cool and composed.
Court missed the 1967 (temporarily retired) and most of the 1972 season after the birth of first child. Each return to tennis produced a better version, and the 1973 season was no different. She won 18 tournaments and 102 of 108 matches. She won her last majors – the Australian over Goolagong (6-4, 7-5) and the French over a defiant young Chris Evert, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4. In that victory, Court displayed her multi-faceted game against the proficient groundstroke attack Evert employed. She often traded strokes with the baseliner, would chip and charge the net off either her backhand or forehand side, served with great aplomb, and displayed great lateral mobility. With the victory, she was halfway towards a second calendar year Grand Slam. As the No. 1 seed at Wimbledon, Court advanced to the semifinals, where Evert exacted a measure of revenge, stopping Court from becoming the only female player in history to win two Grand Slams, 6-1, 1-6, 6-1. For the Aussie it was the third of four losses in a Wimbledon semifinal, the last coming in 1975 after she returned to the tour after the birth of her second child. Court displayed her champion mettle at the US Open two months later, defeating compatriot Goolagong, 7-6, 5-7, 6-2, for her fifth and final title in New York.
Between 1961 and 1975, Court was the world’s top ranked player, a distinction that made her a target for the hustling tennis promoter Bobby Riggs, who challenged her to a tennis match in Ramona, California on May 13, 1973, which happened to fall on Mother’s Day. The made-for-television event on ABC brought out a gallery of celebrities and tennis stars, including John Wayne, Don Budge, Pancho Segura, Casals, and more each who had an opinion on who would win. Court did not take the match particularly seriously and wasn’t prepared for Riggs, who hit soft and short and used dinks and lobs to defeat Court, 6-2, 6-1, in what was dubbed “The Mother’s Day Massacre.” Court’s loss led to Riggs and King meeting in the famous “Battle of the Sexes” four months later in Houston’s Astrodome.
In no fashion could that loss tarnish Court’s accomplishments. She had won more than half of the majors she competed in in 1963, 1964, 1965, 1969, 1970 and 1973. On 36 occasions she was a semifinalist and reached the quarterfinals in 43 of 47 singles majors.
Court seemingly never tired of playing tennis, finding time to win four championships (1964, 1965, 1968, 1970) as a member of the Aussie Fed Cup team.
Honors abounded for Court. She was made Member of the Order of the British Empire (1967), inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame (1985), the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame (1993), earned the ITF’s Phillippe Chatrier Award (2006), and was made Officer of the Order of Australia for her services to tennis (2007). In January 2003, Show Court One at Melbourne Park, home to the Australian Open since 1988, was renamed Margaret Court Arena.
The soft-spoken was ordained as a minister in 1991, first touring throughout Australia in a mobile ministry.
Her autobiography, Court on Court, was published in 1975.