Court off court but still serving

Margaret Court
Reverend Doctor Margaret Court in her office.

Margaret Court remembers her first tennis racket. It was a piece of paling wood from a wooden fence, scrounged from the street near her home in Albury, New South Wales. No strings attached.

Money was tight. Her father had an alcohol problem bad enough that her mother had to cycle to his workplace every payday to make sure she got to his pay packet before he did.

There were tennis courts near Margaret's house and she would go there every day to escape the arguments at home. It was a fun thing for a seven-year-old to do.

One of Margaret's mother's friends saw her at the courts day after day and gave her one of her own rackets, never imagining the fruit that would come from such an act of kindness.

The wooden racket was so big Margaret could hardly wrap her hand around it but it didn't matter. To Margaret, the new racket was smashing.

It was from those humble beginnings that one of the greatest tennis players of all time would emerge. By the time she retired in 1976, Margaret had won 64 Grand Slam tournament titles - including a record 24 singles titles - achievements no tennis player, man or woman, has beaten. She was inducted into the International Hall of Fame three years later.

Margaret's achievements on the tennis court are well known and deservedly celebrated. Equally well-known but far more controversial in recent times has been her second platform in life, as the founder and pastor of Victory Life Church in Western Australia.

In 2017, Australia legalised gay marriage. Right from the outset, Margaret denounced the move, going so far as to boycott Qantas because its CEO, Alan Joyce, supported the legislation. She has been heavily criticised for standing for her Biblical beliefs and been called a homophobe and a bigot.

But she has not flinched. As she had done hundreds of times on the tennis court, Margaret defended her position with determination and dignity.

Margaret was raised a Catholic, and says that she always had an awareness of God, but no real relationship with Him.

"I would go to church on Sunday," she said. "It didn't mean much, but I knew Christmas, I knew Easter. I didn't know Jesus but I knew about Him. I used to kneel down every night and pray, even while on the tennis circuit.

"I would thank God for helping me and protecting me. It was just there in my heart. I used to go to church even while playing, more out of fear than anything. I believed it was a mortal sin not to go. I thought if I didn't go I might lose."

She was also very open about her personal struggles, struggles that ultimately led her to a real relationship with Jesus.

She had severe post-natal depression, insomnia and heart disease (a torn heart valve) and quite an overwhelming feeling of uselessness as the demands of motherhood and life put far more pressure on her than any centre-court tie-breaker ever had.

She wrote in her autobiography: "Depression became a way of life. I became nauseated, lost weight and suffered from insomnia."

During the French Open in 1973, Margaret attended a Protestant church service. She began to think about God and what knowing Him really meant.

"I said 'God where are you? I want to know you. Are you real?' I knew there was something more than me. Even while I was playing I would talk to Him, Lord help me, Lord thank you. I want to win. This is a gift from You.

"My mum always told me my talent was a gift from God. The Press would ask me why are you so good and I'd say it's a gift from God.

"Every person has a gift. But many people get sidetracked and never fulfil their destiny or their goal, or discover what God has for them. God knew us before we were born. I look back and I see how God's hand was upon me even from when I was little."

A friend gave her a small book 'How to Be Born Again.' which Margaret read over and over. Returning to Perth, she discovered another friend, Anne, who had become a 'born again' Christian and marvelled at the new radiance she saw in her.

Soon she went to a church meeting with Anne and responded to the pastor's invitation to receive Jesus Christ as her personal Saviour. Another friend, Barbara Oldfield described that moment. "A struggle of infinite proportions went on inside Margaret that night, for she knew that everyone in that meeting would know who she was if she went forward."

She was still the number one tennis player in the world at that time, and her pride in that achievement, almost stopped her from going forward.

But she was compelled to go. As soon as she prayed and asked Jesus to come into her life, she says it was as though someone had switched the light on inside. An incredible peace and joy flooded her whole being.

The verse that sparked her faith was 2 Timothy 1:7 - 'For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind'. It brought her the salvation she says she yearned for and a cure to the physical and emotional ailments that made her post-playing life such a misery that she had actually contemplated suicide.

She said she knew there and then that if she died she would go to be with the Lord. "That's how real it was to me."

When she told her husband Barry she wanted to go to Bible College, he agreed.

At Bible College Margaret said she slowly saw her heart healed, her depression drop off and her life being put back together again.

Much has changed for the tall and still fit and athletic-looking woman who stunned the tennis world. Yet this one thing remains: She serves the Lord now as single-mindedly as she served her opponents in her competitive heyday. And surely, nobody could fault her for that.

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