Expected Australian honor for tennis great Court stirs controversy

FILE PHOTO: Tennis – Australian Open – Women’s Singles Final – Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia – February 1, 2020 Former tennis player Margaret Court attends the match between Spain’s Garbine Muguruza and Sofia Kenin of the U.S. REUTERS/Hannah Mckay

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia is to award tennis great Margaret Court the country’s highest honor next week, media reported on Friday, a decision that has stoked controversy because of her history of anti-gay views.

The awards are usually announced during the Australia Day holiday on Jan. 26, which comes this year just as the Australian Open, one of the world’s big four tennis Grand Slams, begins in Melbourne after a delay caused by the coronavirus.

Court is to be awarded a Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AC), the highest category of honor, after previously receiving recognition in 2007, media reported.

Court won 24 singles Grand Slam titles in her career and 40 doubles Grand Slams, before retraining as a Pentecostal pastor.

Her award has not been officially confirmed but Victoria state leader Daniel Andrews referred to it on social media, without naming her, saying he did not “want to give this person’s disgraceful, bigoted views any oxygen”.

“But when others insist on rewarding them with this country’s highest honor – I think it’s worth saying again: Grand Slam wins don’t give you some right to spew hatred and create division,” Andrews said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had no “official knowledge” of Court’s award.

“It is a system that recognises the full spectrum of individuals across this country,” Morrison said of the awards.

Neither Court nor her spokeswoman were immediately available for comment.

In her most recent public comments on gay issues, Court in 2019 criticised transgender athletes and called the teaching of LGBT material in schools the work of the devil.

She made those comments at the Perth church she set up decades ago where she is a pastor.

In response, tennis greats Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe said her name should be stripped from the Melbourne Park showcourt and replaced with that of Australia’s former world number one, Evonne Goolagong.

“You name buildings after not what people just did on the court, but also off the court, the whole body of work,” Navratilova, an 18-times Grand Slam champion who is openly gay, said on the Tennis Channel at the time.

Court said then she had been treated unfairly because of her views on “gay marriage and all of those areas”.