The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Stephanie Livaudais, December 3, 2019

What do we do about Margaret Court? | Must-click links in women's tennis | Interview with an Umpire: Anja Vreg

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What do we do about Margaret Court?

Oh, Margaret Court. Tennis just can’t seem to get away from the controversial all-time great, who is set to be fêted at the Australian Open in January. 

Almost as soon as Serena Williams tied and then broke Steffi Graff’s record of 22 Grand Slams – the most won by any man or woman in tennis, which should have immediately made Serena the undisputed GOAT – the goalposts suddenly moved. Margaret Court was plucked back out of relative pre-Open Era obscurity, and her 24 Grand Slams were then presented as the next, final hurdle for Serena to clear.

Suddenly a big deal again, Court, 77, now an ordained Pentecostal minister in Australia, has used her spotlight to double down on the homophobic and hateful rhetoric she’s preached for decades: she’s recently compared LGBT+ culture to Nazi culture and compared activists to Hitler, said the WTA is “full of lesbians” who recruit young women, attacked her fellow Australian player Casey Dellacqua for raising children with her wife, and campaigned relentlessly against Australia’s same-sex marriage referendum. 

That’s not the only reason why calling Court the all-time GOAT is thorny. It’s an accepted truth in tennis that pre-Open Era records don’t really mean much: they’re interesting to talk about, a neat piece of tennis history, but they come with too many asterisks. And back then, the Australian Open, which Court won a record 11 times, wasn’t exactly the prestigious Grand Slam it is today. During the amateur era, most players who weren’t Aussie skipped playing it because of travel costs and scheduling. Even once it became “Open”, it took a while, until the mid-to-late-80s, for the top players to compete there regularly. So in reality, most of Court’s titles were won against Australian journeywoman players in a 32-draw tournament – that’s about the equivalent of a WTA International, the lowest tier of modern professional tennis tournaments. Court also won multiple titles at the other Slams, but it’s those 11 Australian Open titles that her legacy is built on – and it’s in Melbourne where she’s set to be honored for the anniversary of her ‘Grand Slam’ year, when she lifted all four Grand Slam trophies in 1970.

After years of distancing themselves as a result of her public views, Tennis Australia was finally forced to confront the legacy of Margaret Court after the player, who boycotted the tournament last year, publicly called on them to celebrate her in the same way they did Rod Laver, another pre-Open Era all-time great who like Court has a stadium named in his honor at Melbourne Park. They responded this week, announcing that they would take her up on that, preparing a massive celebration for her in Melbourne while also denouncing her views. (You can read the full press release here: the complete change in tone from the first to the second part will give you absolute whiplash.)

The Australian Open is trying to navigate some tricky waters by playing to both sides and focusing just on Court’s tennis achievements. But when it comes to an athlete’s legacy, it’s not just about what they do in sport, it’s also about what they use sport to do. It’s why we talk about Billie Jean King’s fight for women’s equality before we mention her 12 Grand Slam titles, and it’s why we hold up the likes of Arthur Ashe, Muhammad Ali, Venus Williams and Megan Rapinoe above their peers, even when the memory of their sports achievements inevitably starts to fade. 

It will be fascinating to see how the celebration will play out in real life: Will fans applaud or boo the moment? What will be done to make LGBT+ players and fans feel included and welcome, while a vocal homophobe is being celebrated? Will players be expected to attend, including the Australians Court has spent years bashing? Beyond the scrutiny of Court’s legacy, what will this celebration say about the Australian Open’s? And how will the other three Grand Slams, also included in Court’s ‘Grand Slam’ year, handle it? 

This Week in Women’s Tennis

Adios, y gracias: Carla Suárez Navarro, former top Spanish player and one of the nicest people on the WTA, announced she’s retiring at the end of 2020. 

Wedding season continues! Congrats to Kiki Bertens, who tied the knot on Sunday.

From Forbes, the women’s tennis tour produced 44 millionaires in 2019 – ten fewer than the men. 

Billie Jean King’s most charitable moments of 2019, in no particular order.

For Giving Tuesday, the WTA donated $17,000 throughout the season to benefit the local communities where the tour competes. 

Ashleigh Barty won the Newcombe Medal for a third year in a row, taking home the highest honor in Australian tennis.

The late Elena Baltacha, former British No.1 who lost her battle with cancer shortly after retiring in 2014, will be remembered in a BBC documentary.

Serena Williams’ hilarious kitchen (mis)adventures with Olympia continue.

Karolina Pliskova and Madison Keys were some of the players tipped to win their first Grand Slam titles in 2020. 

Tunisia’s top player Ons Jabeur was honored for her trailblazing achievements at the Arab Women of the Year Awards. 

Tweet of the Week

Five at the IX: Anja Vreg

This is one of my favorite interviews by my colleague, Victoria Chiesa, our unofficial expert on all things officials. Victoria chatted with longtime WTA chair umpire Anja Vreg, a Slovenian-born 29-year-old former tennis player, who speaks six languages and has two master’s degrees. Vreg opened up about her career as an umpire, the growing role of female officials, and where she’s going now that she’s ‘retiring’. 

Here are some excerpts below – the full interview is here.

Q: After quitting tennis due to injuries, how did you get into officiating?

VREG: I was going to school like everybody else, and my mom said, ‘Oh, there’s an officiating school in our town — you should go. You never know where it could go.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to go. Who wants to be an umpire?’ You get yelled at, and all those things — I’m not interested.’ 

She said, ‘You should go, you should try it,’ so I went. I was 15 at that time, but since I wasn’t interested in any officiating, I had my badge but I wasn’t really umpiring. 

Then, when I was maybe 17, 18, I started to do more, and I thought that maybe I could just earn some extra money, do some traveling…to see the world while doing tennis.”

Q. When did you start to turn umpiring into a career?

VREG: At an ATP Challenger [in Rijeka, Croatia], I was talking to someone who was a very good friend of mine, and he said, ‘Oh, you’re doing many more tournaments, and you’re officiating more and more — what would be your interest, your goal? Where would you want to go — which Grand Slam?’

And I was like, ‘Come on, I’m not going to do any Grand Slam — I’m far behind that — but if I could choose one, it would be the Australian Open. The next morning, I woke up, and I was selected for the next Australian Open.

I applied thinking I don’t have a chance — at that time, I was already a white badge, doing quite a lot of lines at tournaments around the area, and I applied, but I said, ‘I don’t have a chance. I come from small Slovenia, you know, nobody knows me.’

I just couldn’t believe that the day before, I spoke to somebody and I said that was my wish but it would never come true, and then I woke up to an email… from there, I was getting more and more into it, and it started to be one week after another.

Q: What sort of advice would you give someone who is curious about becoming a chair umpire, or joining the tennis industry?

VREG: The most important thing I can say for young people who decide to get involved in tennis early is to continue to pursue education. I do believe it’s important to get some sort of higher education and broaden your horizons, as it gives you options later in life, should you want to make a change. 

If being on the tour, and traveling and being active, going from one place to another is something that can fit in your profile and character, then tennis is definitely something to explore.

It can give you so many benefits, so many memories and experiences that are hard to get through any other job.

Q. You’ve always been very involved with Hawk-Eye and electronic line calling – what draws you to that?

VREG: I always asked for [Hawk-Eye work] because it gives me a good break from being on court. I felt it would be beneficial to me and for my on-court work, that I could be better if I was mixing it up and not being in the chair constantly. 

I think one good part of doing that job for future chair umpires and the ones that are coming up is the fact that you get to see a lot of the other umpires, and you get to see a lot of situations from which you can learn.

Q. There’s a gender gap in officiating in all sports, but maybe less so in tennis. Women regularly officiate men’s matches, and the number of female officials seems to be growing. What do you make of this?

VREG: There are more women — we are still a minority, but it’s much, much better than it was before. There are more opportunities. The WTA…they’ve been doing a fantastic job in that manner.

I think now, more and more, everyone is starting to realize that whether you’re a female or a male in that job, it doesn’t really make a difference. Before, it was very, very separate — the guys were doing men’s matches, the women were doing women’s matches, but now, everyone started to realize that if you are good at what you do, it doesn’t matter which gender, which sex you are.

If women weren’t doing a good job, it wouldn’t be happening. There is a reason for that, I believe. If you’re good, you’re able to handle men’s matches as well, because you have the respect from the players — you have the respect if you’re doing a good job, and it doesn’t matter what your gender is.

That’s my opinion, and it’s coming more and more across the board, because we have some good female officials. They’re consistently doing a good job, and that is opening the door for other women and also the way that people think of it, the way it’s accepted and the way it’s evolving.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
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By Stephanie Livaudais, @Livaudais
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By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
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By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
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By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Annie Peterson