OLIVER HOLT: Even Margaret Court’s tainted legacy can’t stop her from being the greatest of all time

It has been nearly five years since I went to visit Margaret Court at the Victory Life Center she founded in Perth, Western Australia.

For half an hour I listened to Pastor Margaret preach to her worshiping congregation, and later she spoke to me about prayer, Christianity, her attitude toward same-sex marriage, and three S words: Scriptures, Sin, and Serena.

It was December 2017 and Serena Williams, who nearly died in childbirth earlier in the year, was expected to compete in the Australian Open the following month, aiming to equal Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles.

Serena Williams still chasing the record of 24 Grand Slam titles in women’s singles

Margaret Court (pictured) still holds the record for women's Grand Slam wins

Margaret Court (pictured) still holds the record for women’s Grand Slam wins

Many already regarded Williams as the greatest women’s player of all time and the belief was that another win for her in Melbourne would confirm this.

Williams didn’t end up playing in Melbourne that year, but Court, who won a total of 62 Grand Slam titles, including multiple wins in women’s doubles and mixed doubles, gave the impression that she didn’t like being written out of the record books.

She wasn’t particularly friendly about Williams’ search. “I don’t lose sleep over her chasing my records,” she said. “I don’t think anyone will break the 62, but the 24 will probably go.”

Coincidentally, the 24 probably won’t go. At least not for the ladies. Not for a while.

When Williams played her first singles match in a year at Wimbledon last week, she was defeated in the first round in three sets by Harmony Tan, a French player who is in 115th place in the world ranking.

Williams was defeated in the first round at Wimbledon in three sets by Harmony Tan (pictured)

Williams was defeated in the first round at Wimbledon in three sets by Harmony Tan (pictured)

It was a riveting rollercoaster of a race, but Williams came up short.

Afterwards, she did not say whether she would play Wimbledon again. She did suggest that she would like to play the US Open this summer, but the days are over when she was so dominant that if she showed up to a tournament, she was expected to win.

She is now 40. She is a mother and a businesswoman, a campaigner, an activist, an icon. The game has gone on without her and she has gone on without the game.

Even with a competitor as terrifying as Williams, it’s pretty safe to say she’s never going to win No24. That time is over.

Ash Barty may have unexpectedly retired last year, but there is too much talent to give Williams one last chance.

And as her defeat to Tan nearly ended her top career in sport, it reopened the debate over where she sits in the pantheon.

The biggest ever in the women’s game? Or the best ever in the game? After all, Williams has won more Grand Slam titles than Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Williams has won more Grand Slam singles titles than Roger Federer (pictured left), Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (pictured right)

Williams has won more Grand Slam singles titles than Roger Federer (pictured left), Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (pictured right)

Debates about the best at any sport are endlessly entwined because there is no right answer.

Stats help to prove a point somewhat, but not all the way. Statistics alone give Cristiano Ronaldo a shot at becoming the greatest footballer of all time, but while he is a great player, he wouldn’t be in my top 10. He wouldn’t even be my best player called Ronaldo.

Debates over the biggest are inevitably in favor of current or recent players. More people will be rushing to anoint Lionel Messi as the best in men’s football, as we’ve seen his brilliance on our televisions twice a week for the past 20 years and his brilliance rarely seemed dull.

Pele’s qualities, however, have faded in memory. The same is true, to a greater extent, for Ferenc Puskas.

When I was in Brazil last month, Zico told me that Garrincha would be in his top five players of all time and yet Garrincha has all but disappeared from the public eye, especially in Europe.

Statistics alone give Cristiano Ronaldo a shot at becoming the greatest footballer of all time

Statistics alone give Cristiano Ronaldo a shot at becoming the greatest footballer of all time

The passage of half a century can do that. My top five, in no particular order, would be Pele, Diego Maradona, Messi, Johan Cruyff and Zinedine Zidane. In men’s tennis, the numbers are in favor of Nadal, but I will always argue that Federer is the best of all time.

There is also an argument for Rod Laver, whose performances in the late 1960s have also fallen victim to the caress of time.

Despite all the greatness of the big three of this era, none of them have won the Calendar Slam. Laver did it twice. Nadal is halfway through joining him this year.

So I understand the desire to declare Williams the best in her sport, especially now that she is about to retire.

Her rise from Compton, in South Central Los Angeles, is one of the most inspiring stories in sports history, and now that many of Court’s views have become so outrageous, the desire to knock the Australian off the top is a powerful pull.

Williams will no doubt go down in history as one of the greats when she retires from tennis

Williams will no doubt go down in history as one of the greats when she retires from tennis

But the inconvenient truth is that Court’s claim to be the greatest isn’t so easily dispelled, no matter what you’ve come to think of her.

Her remarkable run of wins started before the Open era began in 1968, but was hardly slowed down by the start (she won the Calendar Slam in 1970).

She won a slew of titles at the Australian Open, her home event, to be sure, but she didn’t win it as often as Nadal has won the French Open.

She has also won the French Open more times than Serena and for anyone who has rightly noted that Williams showed almost superhuman desire, dedication and talent to reach four Grand Slam finals after the birth of her daughter, Olympia, it is also worth noting. remember that Hof won three Grand Slams after the birth of her oldest son, Daniel.

The inconvenient truth is that Margaret Court's claim to be the greatest is not so easily dispelled

The inconvenient truth is that Margaret Court’s claim to be the greatest is not so easily dispelled

Court, like Steffi Graf and Maureen Connolly, also won the Calendar Slam of all four major tournaments in a year, a feat that eluded Williams and other greats of the game such as Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King.

Not to mention the 38 Grand Slam women’s doubles and mixed doubles titles that Court won.

Graf and Navratilova are my favorite players, but that’s a product of my age. Court’s legacy may have been tarnished by her bigotry, but does that mean she wasn’t the greatest tennis player ever? Some want to try to reinterpret history because of the person the Court has become.

Perhaps it will suffice to say that Williams is the best you can applaud with a clear conscience. Other than that, in the women’s game, the crown still belongs to Court.

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