The record holder of the most major titles in the world, former tennis great and founder of Victory Life Centre in Perth, Australia, Margaret Court shares how unwavering obedience to God has shaped her life.
It has been 45 years since Margaret Smith Court retired from professional tennis in 1977, but her record of 24 Grand Slam titles—64 major titles—remains unbeaten, even by Serena Williams who retired earlier this month with 23 Grand Slam titles to her name.
Today, she is the senior pastor of Victory Life Centre, a Pentecostal church in Perth, Australia that she founded in 1995, and principal of its Bible school, Victory Life Bible Training Centre. Pastor Margaret was in Singapore two weeks ago to speak at a dinner gathering of City Harvest Church leaders.
In her address, she shared her life story—how she grew up in a poor family in Albury, New South Wales; how a family friend gave her an old tennis racquet, and she began training under a tennis coach from Sydney and began winning country tournament; how she had favour with her trainers and was given opportunity to train in the men’s gym; how, at the age of 18, she won the first of seven consecutive singles titles at the Australian Championships. She was the first Australian woman to win a Grand Slam tournament outside of Australia, winning the French and US championships in 1962, and in 1963 she fulfilled her dream of becoming the first Australian woman to win Wimbledon.
She married Barry Court in 1967 and in 1972, had her first child. She returned to playing the next year and went on to win 24 tournaments. It was only after the birth of her second child, Marika, who is now also a pastor, that Pastor Margaret retired from tennis.
Although she grew up a Roman Catholic, she became a born again Christian at a Pentecostal meeting in 1972: “I went forward, and I gave my heart to Christ. Nobody really touched me, but I hit the floor and began praying in tongues.” This was when she was at the peak of her tennis career. When she began travelling for tournaments and meeting with the journalists who had interviewed her for years, her transformation was so startling that they asked her what happened to her, and she led a number of them to Christ.
After she retired and had her third and fourth children, Pastor Margaret went through a period of depression and physical ailments. These were miraculously healed by the Word of God when she attended Bible school in the early ‘80s. In 1995, God called her to pastor a church, so at the age of 53, she founded Victory Life Christian Centre in Perth. Margaret Court Community Outreach was founded in 1997, provides financial assistance and support to the community.
Her strong stand on the Word of God has drawn resistance from the world—she has been criticised by the media for her views against alternative lifestyles, but like a warrior, she sets her face like flint.
Pastor Margaret shared at the meeting that the visions that God gives may take decades to come to pass—what a believer must do is stay obedient and prayerful.
“If you look at through the Bible, at what all the great men and women of God did, it was all out of obedience and stepping out and just doing,” she said. “And I believe the other thing is prayer. Prayer paves the way. Seek Him, seek His face. I wouldn’t be here today if not for prayer.”
CityRadio’s producer (who is also a tennis fan and coach) Bernard Loh sat down to chat with Pastor Margaret for City News.
Bernard Loh: Pastor Margaret, you are the greatest of all time with 24 major singles titles. What moment in your tennis career are you proudest of?
Margaret Court: Probably the year that I won the Grand Slam, which was in 1970. And that was winning all four major championships—the Australian, the French, Wimbledon, US—all in one year. I had won three out of the four twice before, but to do that all in one year was very difficult, because just everything had to be right. Federer hasn’t done it, and Djokovic got to the last one. But so many people got three out of four, but not four out of four. [It’s hard] in just that year, to stay at that competitive side, and have everything just going right for you.
That’s amazing. You’re right, Djokovic came really close.
To the last one (the final tournament to score a Grand Slam). And I remember my last one against a player in the finals, and I’ve never lost two, but I dropped a set. And thought, “Oh no, I got this far, I don’t want to lose it.” So then I went on to win it. But those thoughts crept in.
Pastor, do you still play?
No, I stopped about five years ago. I do walking and that sort of thing now, but I don’t play anymore.
What about your kids and grandkids? Are they into tennis?
No, not in the capacity that I played. A few of them have coaching lessons, or just play socially.
You went from being a tennis player with a wonderful 17-year career to becoming a preacher of the Word. What challenges did you face in that transition?
Well, I did give my heart to Christ when I was number one in the world in tennis. So that was in about 1971, the year after I won the Grand Slam. And then being that a born again, Christian, I went back into tennis for about another four years. But in that time, I also had a child and went back and won 24 tournaments after having a child—I should have gone for another Grand Slam. But then I sort of then fell pregnant again after that, and had second child (Pastor Marika, who is here with me). And I went back into tennis and took two, but I found my heart wasn’t there anymore. So I knew it’s time to retire then. We retired in Australia and had two more children. So I had four children.
The first seven years of my Christianity. I didn’t really know the Bible, because I was from a Catholic background. And so in that time, after having four children under eight, I went through a time of depression, torn valve in the heart, insomnia. So I got to the place that life wasn’t worth living. And I remember crying out to God and said, God is what am I to do? Is this you? Because everybody was saying, you’re going through this for the glory of Christ. And I thought, if I keep going this way, I’m gonna go home and be with the Lord or finish up in a home somewhere.
At that time, it was in the late 70s, early 80s. I finish up going to Rhema Bible Training Centre in 1982. I had got to the place I didn’t want a lot to do with Christianity, because my life had become such a mess. But I went through Bible school and in the second year, just going and sitting and learning. I found that I was totally healed of depression, heart trouble, insomnia— the Word of God changed my life.
After Bible school, you know, and with the children and we owned a farm, I waited some years until they’ve just about the last one was finished school. I felt God was calling me into ministry. Before that, I traveled a little bit. And I had a wonderful testimony of how the Word of God be not conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. I found how the mind was a battlefield, a gateway to the heart. So it changed my life so much. So it was in 1991. I was ordained and then had Margaret Court Ministries and went around the city and community centers, praying for people and teaching. I did that for five years. And then I felt the Lord was saying, “I want you to pastor a church”. And so I started that 27 years ago; I was 53. When I started, most pastors are thinking of retiring at that age.
You just shared that you had your first child then you went to win, 23 out of the 24 titles. My child is 3 months old, and every three hours my wife wakes up to feed the kid…
That’s right. Well, you do that for a few months, and then you forget all about it. When you have the next one you forget what you went through for those first three to six months. And really, you know, the Scripture says, “God is gentle with those who have young” (Isaiah 40:11) So I think, you know, that time it’s really about giving them 100 percent of your time.
What are some of the disciplines and practices you brought in from the world of tennis into your calling as a minister?
Because you train so hard… I feel I brought in the discipline, the commitment, the focus—those three areas—because I loved it. My whole life was training and discipline; I had goals. I think I was probably at the age of 13 when somebody said, “You could be the first Australian woman to win Wimbledon” and that was my first goal. And then somebody said, “Well you need to go for the Grand Slam”, so that was my second goal. And then I wanted to be the first mom to be number one in the world. So you had all these visions or goals. In the Scripture it says in Habukkuk, “Write the vision, make it plain that those who read it run with it”. So throughout my life, I had that. I had it in my sporting days, then God showed me some things and I wrote down the vision and brought it to the church. After that, you just pray, and you start looking at it. You start working towards it, and doing all you know to do, and pray and read the Word of God, and you start seeing it unfold before you. You try not to make to happen, because it’s God’s hand that’s upon it and His grace.
He said to me, “We will own the whole street” where we (Victory Life Centre) are, and we’ve just fulfilled that these last six months. So we own the whole street and it’s not mine—it belongs to God. And we have an international Bible Training Center; we put out 100 tons of food a week into community—we have a big community services—and He told me 21 years ago, we would build a prayer tower, and that’s just finished—we have the prayer tower. So all the areas that God has given us to do, we’ve fulfilled. And He says “Now, fill it.” And so we have prayer and healing school, and we have so many different areas we look after in community. He said, “You look after community, I’ll look after you.”
You are a bold preacher and a public figure. And you have endured so much resistance from the world because you insist on God’s standard.
That’s right. I was brought up like that as a little girl though—I knew the rights and the wrongs. I was taught that even from my Catholic background; there were teachings in there, particularly about family and marriage. Then when you start to know the Bible, and you start to see that from Genesis, how God created man for woman and woman for man, it says there in Genesis 2. And then you look in the Gospels, Jesus said exactly the same wording. And He said, “Husband, leave your mother and father, cleave to your wife.” And then in Ephesians, Pauls said exactly the same thing. So you get it right through the Bible— family is all the way from the beginning, right through to Revelation. So if God says it, and you know it in your heart, it’s easy to preach it and to talk on it, because that’s how He made it, He created it that way. I think you look at the world and family is so dysfunctional today, but if you look at God’s Word, you can have the greatest marriage. We’ve been married now for 54 years, and I’ve got a wonderful family. So, you teach that and you walk it.
The media portrays things negatively, but who are the people in the tennis world who support you?
I find the Davis Cup Team, men like Rod Laver, Fred Stolle, Roy Emerson—I trained with them when I was very young. I was very fortunate to be able to train with the Australian Davis Cup team, they are my friends. And then I went away and teamed with Lesley Bowrey. But they don’t travel too much, the press don’t ask them. The press—even from the pulpit, if I speak on family and marriage—the press will take one word and distort it. So I’ve learned. I pray for them. And the tennis players who come against me, I hold nothing against them, I pray for them.
But it’s a choice. I always say I love the people, but a wrong doesn’t make a right. I say what the Bible says about family, and so you just keep on keeping on. One thing the Lord taught me many years ago about the press, He said, “Just say what I say in the Scriptures” and it falls on Him, not on me. And you think, “How can you lie when you say what God says?”
Pastor, big question: If you could do it all over again, being a voice in the wilderness, would you do it differently?
Probably way back earlier, I said a couple of things which the press took out of context, I probably could have said it better. But other than that, no. We walk by faith, we walk in a world that it’s getting darker, we are to be light amongst darkness, and we are the salt in the earth. If the church is not a voice of righteousness and truth and justice, darkness will become more and more. That’s why the church has to be His voice in the earth; we bring heaven to earth. And God’s waiting for his church to move. He’s done everything through Jesus Christ on the cross, He fulfilled everything at the cross for us to walk in the light of it now. That’s what faith is: saying what God says. And I think the church has moved away from the Word of God. We are to push back darkness. We’re not fighting flesh and blood; it’s principalities and powers and rulers of darkness. So that’s where I feel the church has to come together. We can come together on Jesus Christ. We may have different theologies and different teachings, but we can come together on salvation, and stand together and lift Him up. His name is above every name and the heavens and the earth and under the earth. And we come against the principalities and powers because they’re trying to shut the mouth of the roaring lion.
You called your church Victory Life Centre. What exactly is a victorious life? How does one live it?
Well, Jesus has already given us victory, and that’s why I called it that. If you look into the mirror—the Word—and you look at yourself in there, and who we are in Christ, Christ within us, that we look from the inside that we may know Him and the power of His resurrection. We’ve already got the gifts, we’ve got His nature within us, the day we were born again, everything was given to us. We just have to get a revelation of our righteousness, our right standing. As sons and daughters we are made in the image of He as He is. And so we’ve just got to get the revelation of who we are, and we walk by faith. And we trust Him, that things in the natural are temporal, they’re always subject to change. What’s impossible to man is possible to God. Yes, we go through things, but we keep our eyes on Him.
How did you and Pastor Kong meet?
I met him through Dr [Yonggi] Cho. Dr Cho came to our church in Perth, and I asked him, why did he come to Perth? Because he he was in front of stadiums and big churches and everything else. And he came to us twice. He said, “I came because I watched you play tennis. And I enjoyed watching you play tennis.” And then he came because he said “I love coming to your church because the Holy Spirit is here.” So that’s how we built that [relationship] and then I finished up on his international board.
The Lord always told me one day I’d speak in front of 100,000 people, I said, “I don’t travel too much, how am I ever going to do that?” And Dr Cho, when he came to our church, he said to me, “I’d like you in three weeks’ time to come to our conference.” And then I was speaking in that stadium. Then he said, “I want you to come and I want you to do my one o’clock service—100,000 people watch it.” I’d never been so nervous in all my life. So, when Pastor Cho said “I’d like you to come to Korea in three weeks’ time” and I was thinking “I can’t do that”, Kong was sitting at the other end of the table and he’s going, “Say yes! Say you’re coming!” That’s how we met.
Why didn’t you convince my pastor to play tennis?
(Laughs) I played here in Singapore, an exhibition match in 1963. I was only a teenager and we stopped here. They made a tennis court on the cricket oval in the Cricket Club. There was nothing–no buildings, not much. There were shacks everywhere. There were boats on the water and people lived in them. I thought, how can anybody live like this and move me tremendously—that would have been 1962. And that was my first impression of Singapore. I look at it today and I think “My goodness, where you’ve come from!”
If you have one message for our readers today and the members of City Harvest Church, what would it be?
Stay close to Jesus. Have a prayer life. Keep that intimacy—doesn’t matter what you’re going through. Get into prayer, hear His voice, He will always bring you through. And He will not give you anything outside the Word of God, the Bible—”For they are life unto those that find them, and health to all their flesh.” (Prov 4:22) Just keep on being focused, keep in Him. You train to reign. It’s no different to playing sport, where you go for a jog or running or you’re keeping fit. You stay fit and healthy—in the spiritual side, in the Word of God—and they go parallel, they work together.