Sydney - Tennis great Margaret Court leapt to the defence of Israel Folau on Thursday, saying the Wallabies superstar was being "persecuted" for quoting the Bible in an anti-gay post on social media.
The devoutly religious Folau is facing the sack by Rugby Australia after posting on social media that "hell awaits" homosexuals. It follows a similar row last year.
Court, who won a record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, is now a church pastor and no stranger to controversial views.
In recent years she has vowed to boycott airline Qantas for its support of same-sex marriage, while sparking uproar for claiming tennis was "full of lesbians" and that transgender children were the result of a Nazi-style plot.
She said Folau was speaking from a belief that everyone can be saved if they repent.
"I was on the highway to hell when I was number one in the world in tennis and reached out to Christ," she told The Australian newspaper.
"I understand why Israel is doing this: you want everybody to know Christ and under it all there is a great love for your nation and you want people to know what you have received.
"That means drug addicts, gays, alcoholics: they all come to my church and I love them and I'm sure Israel loves them too.
"What he is saying about repenting is straight out of the Bible. My heart goes out to him because he's being persecuted."
Folau posted a banner on Instagram last week that read: "Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators - Hell awaits you."
He has vowed to stand by "what the Bible says", saying "I share it with love."
Rugby Australia has moved to sack Folau on the grounds his post was a code of conduct breach by failing to adhere to the sport's policies and values of inclusiveness.
A tribunal is due to decide his fate at a date to be confirmed.
Folau, Australia's most marketable player until the row exploded, has been suspended by the NSW Rugby Union until further notice.
Court, whose own comments sparked calls for her name to be removed from a show court at Melbourne Park, which hosts the Australian Open Grand Slam, said she sent Folau one of her books last year when he was initially criticised for his anti-gay views.