Jonathan Newman and James Rogers are the hosts of The Body Serve Tennis Podcast. In the The Body Serve Diary, Jonathan and James write conversationally about the various happenings in the wild world of tennis. In this Diary entry, the boys are joined by former guest of the show and Twitter pal from Australia, Frith (@PluckyLoser), to discuss the myriad issues surrounding one of the hottest topics in the early going of the 2018 Australian Open.
Jon: Renaming Margaret Court Arena has been a hot topic in tennis over much of the past year, owing in large part to Court’s bigoted views of queer people and her active role in disseminating those views to influence the “no vote” against marriage equality in Australia. And so, since marriage equality is now the law of the land in Australia, and Court’s name still adorns that show court at Melbourne Park, it comes as no surprise that players are being made to grapple with this at this year’s tournament. Still, the issue has been framed in a myopic way, and we’re hoping to make the discourse a bit more elastic.
James: I’m glad you noted that the reason Court has upset people is not simply because she holds beliefs that many find repugnant. It’s her behavior: her direct attacks on fellow Aussie Casey Dellacqua and other LGBTQ tennis players, her political action, her church’s stance on ex-gay conversion therapy, and her repeated attempts to degrade queer people and their families in the public sphere. Of course she “has a right to an opinion,” as do all of us in free-ish societies. So let’s just get that out of the way. But I believe that speech has real consequences.
Billie Jean King released a statement last week asking that Margaret Court’s name be removed from the arena due to Court’s outspoken attitudes toward lgbtq people. Obviously, this is a hot topic amongst journalists ahead of this year’s Australian Open.
While I think it’s important not to avoid the topic altogether, I have a problem with how it’s being framed on social media and in the press. Players are being asked “would you play on Margaret Court Arena?” This assumes that: a) they have a choice; b) they understand the context of the question; and c) that this will elicit any worthwhile or thoughtful answers. I’m skeptical about all three.
Frith: I might be starting this on a somewhat radical note, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that Australia does not have a Bill of Rights that guarantees a right to free speech, though the high courts have found that freedom of expression is implied. So legally it’s a different kind of issue here, to what people might be used to in other places.
In terms of Billie Jean’s statement, while it definitely was the right thing for her to do, it won’t necessarily have much of a proactive impact on the naming. Aussies are awfully recalcitrant and don’t really take well to being told what to do in our own country, especially by an American. I’m sorry, but it’s true!
I agree with you that putting the onus on the players seems like an unworkable approach. I mean, let’s say they want to boycott Margaret Court Arena - how exactly does that even play out? On a purely practical level, if I am 18-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov and I don’t want to play my match on Margaret Court Arena, what happens?
Jon: I don't know. I'm not even sure the players know how that scenario would play out, or if it's something they had even considered. It also seems like some of the top players asked about this in their pre-tournament press availabilities were caught a bit off guard by the question. But now that it's out there, we know you've done some digging to get to the bottom of what the actual process is for changing the name of the court.
Frith: I’m sorry if this is incredibly dry, but I’d like to go into a little bit about how the naming rights to Margaret Court Arena work, because I have been obsessing over this lately and I think it’s fascinating, or at least important.
Melbourne Park, the larger facility in which Margaret Court Arena (MCA) is homed -- which includes Rod Laver and all the rest of the courts -- is owned and operated by the Melbourne and Olympic Parks Trust (MOPT). This is a statutory authority run by a Board of Trustees who report to the State Minister for Events, Tourism and Sport. It’s covered by an act of Parliament (Melbourne and Olympic Parks Act 1985) which combined the Olympic Park with the National Tennis Centre. I spent a couple of days reading the act, vision statements, and a bunch of reports so you don’t have to.
The Australian Open is unquestionably the largest event that takes place at Melbourne Park, but it’s not the only one. Netball and basketball teams all call Melbourne Park and, more specifically, Margaret Court Arena, home. It’s also used as a venue for bands and entertainment throughout the year - there was even an ice-hockey game there once. Tennis Australia are a co-tenant. They’re definitely in the penthouse, but they don’t own the building.
This is all super important to recognise, in my opinion, because if we just keep asking Craig Tiley to change it he can honestly keep playing the same straight bat he’s been playing this whole time: saying that there’s more to it than Tennis Australia, that it’s complex and multi-layered. I do think that he could do and say more, that if Tennis Australia brought their influence to bear it would make a huge difference. But when he says it’s out of his hands, he’s right.
I’ve written to the State Premier, Daniel Andrews, asking for his help because he’s been a long time outspoken ally to the LGBTQIA community. It’s not remotely in his purview, but I figured it couldn’t hurt going to the big fella. I’ve also written to the State Minister for Sport, John Eren MP, whose bio states that he is “passionate about sport and recreation and giving all Victorians equal opportunity to get involved, stay active and play the sport they love.” (I told you, I’ve read a lot of vision statements.) I’m fully expecting them to get back to me saying that it’s the decision of the board of trustees, and they respect the independence of the MOPT. Especially because it’s an election year in Victoria and I don’t think they’ll be keen on creating an issue that might distract from whatever their primary campaign messages are. Colour me cynical, but it’s the way it is.
So, the real target for any meaningful campaign will be the board themselves. I’m contacting the Director of Arenas, Steve Harper CFE, requesting information on the nature of the agreement to rename Show Court 1, Margaret Court Arena. If it’s an honorary arrangement, that’s definitely in our favour, but if there’s a bequest tied to naming rights in perpetuity, hoo boy we are in trouble! Everything gets more complicated when there’s money on the table. Is there a get outta jail free card, if the name negatively affects the commercial value of the building? There’s a lot that’s yet to become clear and I remain optimistic.
Basically, my point is that nothing is going to change this Australian Open. I don’t even think it’ll change this year. My aim would be AO20, though obviously AO19 would be amazing. It’s going to take a lot of convincing arguments, probably a tonne of meetings and a million emails. It’s boring, practical, grassroots activism that will get this over the line. A bunch of concerned letter writers asking the right people the right questions.
So while it’s good to know where players stand on LGBTQIA rights and messages of support are so important - read the tweet from my friend Mitch about Laura Robson if you need to understand why - Margaret Court Arena will be Margaret Court Arena for a while yet, whether or not Denis Shapovalov wants to play there or not. So stop yelling at the players please.
(Sorry Denis for picking your name out of the blue! Must’ve been a tough loss today and now some random Australian talking about trustees won’t keep your name out of her mouth. I’m happy for you though James.)
James: Wow, thanks Frith for bringing some much-needed context to this discussion.
I’m glad you mentioned the tweets from your friend Mitch (@mitchgrow). His experience, and Laura Robson’s demonstration in 2012, remind me that this is the type of action that can make change: small, organic, and personal. I’d add to that list Casey Dellacqua’s personal essay in response to Court’s public attack, along with loving and public support from Ash Barty and Rennae Stubbs. I think these have more potential to be powerful than player press conferences. They remind us that this isn’t just a politically correct campaign led by angry “liberals.” We are real people whose lives are made more difficult and indeed more dangerous by people who seek to dehumanize us.
That’s not to say that players can’t totally change the game, so to speak. If Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, for example, made an affirming statement to their legion of LGBTQ fans, that would be damn near earth-shattering in the world of tennis. But, if we expect to hear from them, we will definitely be disappointed. That said, it would be nice to see a single gesture toward acceptance from an ATP player not named Andy Murray or Roberto Bautista Agut. I’m just afraid that the context is totally lost on a lot of these players. The cultural gulf might be too much, they might feel they stand to risk too much by speaking out, or they simply don’t care (or the very real possibility that many actually agree with Court).
Jon: We heap all the expectation to effect change onto the players. They will have to deal with the negative headlines, while the people who have the actual clout to influence the name change -- as Frith researched and pointed out -- stay quiet or drag their feet. This is not to say we shouldn’t expect tennis players to be allies in one way or another, but to judge them based on whether they would “boycott Margaret Court Arena” is, frankly, a bit absurd. If a player chooses to do so, more power to him or her, but hopefully we can put the onus on the bureaucrats and the politicians instead. As Frith says, “stop yelling at the players, please!” As for the question being posed to players about boycotting MCA, perhaps it’s part of larger reporting, and I hope that whatever comes of this includes more context than what’s been leveled at the players so far.
Many thanks to Frith for joining us for this Diary entry. Your research and willingness to share it with us is very much appreciated.
Jonathan Newman and James Rogers are the hosts of The Body Serve Tennis Podcast. In the The Body Serve Diary, Jonathan and James write conversationally about the various happenings in the wild world of tennis.
Jon: Holy cow, what an opening day of the Australian Open! Only ONE of the 10 ‘merican women (Nicole Gibbs) who played in Melbourne yesterday survived the carnage. Among the defeated: Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandeweghe, CiCi Bellis, Taylor Townsend, and Alison Riske. Within the first four hours of play, Venus, Sloane, and CoCo -- three of the four semifinalists from the 2017 U.S. Open -- were out. The top two American men, John Isner and Jack Sock, also bowed out in the first round. I certainly can’t remember a day like this for American tennis at a Slam, can you?
James: There were probably a few French Opens back in the day that saw this much American blood spilt. But to your point, it was a shocking display from the U.S. contingent. I was actually most surprised by Vandeweghe’s performance; going in, I felt that she had momentum and a tricky, but not impossible, first round. I heard reports that she had the flu, though. What about you -- any true shockers for you, or was it just jarring that this all happened on the same day?
Jon: Not really. I think it’s not so much that these individual American players lost to these particular opponents, but that they all lost on the same day and in such a large volume. Bencic was always going to be a tough out for Venus; nobody has played and won more matches than her since Singapore. Sloane Stephens hasn’t won a match in a long time and she was playing Zhang, ranked #34 and the highest ranked first round opponent for a seeded player. I take your point about CoCo; she came in fresh off that ESPNW article aiming to debunk the perception of her being arrogant, and was viewed as a legit threat on these fast courts to build on her two Slam semis last year. Babos played top tennis, and if you’re not at your fighting best physically, then it becomes all the more difficult to perform at this level. While her loss may have been surprising, CoCo’s outbursts were not, just as they weren’t again from Ryan Harrison. These two continue to lower the bar for expectations of Americans overseas.
James: There’s just no excuse for hurling obscenities at your opponent or your opponent’s fans. I’ll never understand the bloc that believes that this abusive and embarrassing behavior is “good for the sport.” It is amazing to me that Ryan Harrison, especially, has any fans left. At least Colleen, for her part, put on her gentle, reasonable voice when conversing with the chair last night after getting a point penalty. The universe is serving Jack Sock a bit of restorative justice lately; after his less-than-full-effort performance in Auckland, there’s talk of rescinding his $100k appearance fee, and now he’s out in the first round in Melbourne after ending the 2017 season on a high.
Jon: Sock says it’s been very difficult to deal with the start of a new year after finishing on such a high at the end of 2017 (winning Paris to qualify for the year-end championships). Paraphrasing here, but it’s been a struggle for him to get motivated after having such a short turnaround between seasons, having never played that deep into a season before. All that makes perfect sense, but it’s not a good look when your performance is so bad that people are calling it tanking, and not for the first time in your career. Being in the top 10 also means added scrutiny, and having to answer for behaviour that would have flown under the radar when he was a less accomplished singles player.
As for Harrison, it’s not just about the swearing on court, which some have suggested dismissively. It’s about, as you pointed out, swearing at your opponent (in the case of Hanfmann), and your opponent’s supporters. It’s certainly not behaviour that would be tolerated or excused if done by someone like Nick Kyrgios; there is absolutely a double standard there, one that I believe has to do with race. Context is very important when debunking the “oh, who hasn’t cursed before” argument. This is an American player, casually and aggressively saying "fuck THOSE people" directed at an obviously majority Jewish group of people, on foreign soil. It reinforces some really ugly stereotypes about Americans, ESPECIALLY in this day and age.
James: Yet totally in keeping with the tenor of our national conversation. Can we talk about something more fun? Sloane Stephens’ press conference, for example. When Sloane feels like participating, she is such a hilarious presence in press. Take this, haters: “Relax, everybody. It will be okay. Don't worry. We will get back to having fun soon.” I’m not too worried about Sloane, because she took this attitude last summer right before she went on a tear through the American hard courts. Just as she did then, she ensured the assembled press, “I’m going to beat someone eventually. I’ll have the best Instagram picture when I snap this losing streak.”
Obviously, Sloane was not in fighting shape to start this tournament. It’s really only her second tournament back after her knee injury, which she played on for much of the fall. Nike’s atrocious kit certainly didn’t help her mystique.
Jon: Sloane’s mystique? We need to do a segment to delve into what you mean by that at another time. To expect Sloane Stephens to have continued that otherworldly form in New York through the rest of her career was just never on the table. She will never be Serena, nor Venus; she is Sloane, and that’s (BIG SHOCK) totally OK. I’m glad to hear she is comfortable enough in her skin to push back against the press for trying to pigeon hole her into that lane. She will come back and win again, and continue to do HER in the meantime.
One of the most anticipated storylines of day one was Rafa’s return to sleeveless tops, a full decade after he last wore one on the ATP Tour. I am saddened to report that it was a big big miss.
James: Perhaps “mystique” is not the word I was going for! As for Rafa’s kit, Nike is trash. They gave us a full line of unimaginative, bland, and just plain ugly kits for their top players this year. Fumbling Rafa’s return to the sleeveless look is something I cannot forgive. But, I was glad to see that Rafa got through his match without drama.
Sadly, I was asleep during Rafa’s match, as it started at 3 am here. I just went to check the stats on ausopen.com, and wouldn’t you know, they don’t work! It’s actually impressive how the tournament has fumbled just about every aspect of their digital technology: the app and website went down simultaneously in the first minutes of play, and even when they are purportedly working, they are full of bugs. As a layperson when it comes to technology, all I can do is laugh. I don’t understand the need to completely rework the app each year; I don’t recall having any problems before. Between the tech problems, the “draw ceremony,” and having to reckon with the ever-irritating Margaret Court, there’s a dark cloud over the Happy Slam which hopefully moves away soon.
Jon: If I know you, those last few sentences read like you’re about ready to put a wrap on this Diary entry! Let me just say about Rafa’s kit...the pink is the LEAST of the trouble with it. For whatever reason, the arm holes of the shirt are enormous and have Rafa’s still-very-ample musculature swimming, and the grey colour of the shirt just makes it look dirty. It looks like one of those patterns that designers first cut to put on a mannequin. It looks entirely unfinished and unwashed. A bright white shirt or even charcoal (although not hot weather friendly) would have done much better.
James: Why not an homage to Rafa’s signature pre-2009 look? What a shambles. Anyway, you’re correct that I was wrapping up; we have to save something for the podcast! To look out for: who will take advantage of holes in the draw left by Venus, Sloane, and CoCo? CoCo’s section now looks like a cakewalk for Wozniacki to reach the semifinals. I’ll also be especially interested to see Novak and Stan tonight. ‘Til next time!