John McEnroe Takes The Bait, Says Serena Williams Would Rank 700th Among Men
John McEnroe doesn't parse words, and he definitely doesn't lack confidence in his own abilities. Those are personality traits that came strongly into play when the tennis great sat down with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro to discuss his new memoir, But Seriously, as well as the state of modern tennis.
Of course, there's no discussing modern tennis without talking about Serena Williams - one of the most famous, successful and decorated tennis players in the history of the sport. She changed the conversation. She changed the expectations. She changed the limits we put on who can be an American icon of sports, and what they can look like.
Serena Williams is peer-less in her transcendence and her achievements as an athlete and a woman - both as separate entities and together. So when Garcia-Navarro broached the topic of Williams as an all-time great, she put McEnroe on the spot:
Garcia-Navarro: We're talking about male players but there is of course wonderful female players. Let's talk about Serena Williams. You say she is the best female player in the world in the book.
McEnroe: Best female player ever — no question.
Garcia-Navarro: Some wouldn't qualify it, some would say she's the best player in the world. Why qualify it?
McEnroe: Oh! Uh, she's not, you mean, the best player in the world, period?
Garcia-Navarro: Yeah, the best tennis player in the world. You know, why say female player?
McEnroe: Well because if she was in, if she played the men's circuit she'd be like 700 in the world.
Garcia-Navarro: You think so?
McEnroe: Yeah. That doesn't mean I don't think Serena is an incredible player. I do, but the reality of what would happen would be I think something that perhaps it'd be a little higher, perhaps it'd be a little lower. And on a given day, Serena could beat some players. I believe because she's so incredibly strong mentally that she could overcome some situations where players would choke 'cause she's been in it so many times, so many situations at Wimbledon, The U.S. Open, etc. But if she had to just play the circuit — the men's circuit — that would be an entirely different story.
Garcia-Navarro: Many people over the years, including, we should mention Donald Trump, the President, wanted you to play her, and you seemed to have at least thought about it.
McEnroe: Well I've thought about it. I didn't really want to do it, personally. I don't know, people always seemed — I would say why don't they go ask Roger Federer? Or someone, you know they added the old fart that's you know 25 years over the hill. And I think I can still play and I think I could still — I mean my kids don't think I can beat her anymore. Maybe I should get her now because she's pregnant, but the truth is that I think that sometimes —I don't know why in tennis, I get it's that one battle of the sexes when Bobby Riggs played Billie Jean.
Garcia-Navarro: Billie Jean one of the most famous, iconic and most watched, I think tennis matches at the time.
McEnroe: Yeah, it was no question. I think there was the most, the biggest attendance at the Houston Astrodome, and it was great that Billie Jean did that but...OK, but that doesn't mean, talk about other sports. If you go look at the times, for example, of the world's fastest females — and you know maybe it will change! You know my daughter, one the things she says is 'You're a feminist, Dad.' OK. I started with two boys, I got four girls now and I'm all for it and I'm trying to just get with it and figure it out.
Garcia-Navarro: So, you're a feminist.
McEnroe: Maybe at some point a women's tennis player can be better than anybody. I just haven't seen it in any other sport, and I haven't seen it in tennis. I suppose anything's possible at some stage.
Garcia-Navarro: You really think at 60, you could possibly beat Serena Williams? Maybe pregnant.
McEnroe: The way you put that makes me think that you have your doubts.
Garcia-Navarro: Far be it from me to question you Mr. McEnroe.
It's important to note before we delve into this that McEnroe has his own conversational style and sensibility that doesn't translate well in text. Also, asking a professional athlete with the ego and bravado of McEnroe whether he thinks he can beat a woman in a sport he dominated for a long time is a bit of a dead end. Players like that do not take kindly to challenges to their acumen, even if they try to play it cool. Legendary athletes are almost always manically competitive, so it's a bit unfair to ask someone like that whether they think they'd lose any match.
It's incredibly had for me to label McEnroe a sexist here, purely because there is so much at play in the interview - including the fact that he seems to have been baited into offering an answer that wold inevitably sound sexist. By all accounts, McEnroe respects Williams' talent immensely. He showed no hesitation in definitively naming her the best female player of all time.
But then again... duh. It doesn't take much bravery to take the stance that Williams is the greatest female tennis player ever. Arguing against that opinion would be the challenge. There's a strong case that she's the greatest American female athlete of all time, in any sport.
Plus, tennis might be one of the few sports in which a man's physiological advantages, the ones that make men faster, stronger and more explosive or powerful then women purely by nature, are actually nullified a bit. Tennis the power and speed on the ball from an elite male player is certainly something that a female player might struggle with - particularly males in their primes versus females in their prime. But the courts are the same size, as is the coordination and the skills that help a player to anticipate the moves of their opponents.
Williams is no ordinary tennis player, male or female. You don't have to believe that she could beat a top 100 male in the prime of his career, but it's entirely within the realm of possibility. To argue that there are 699 men in the world that are better career tennis players than Serena Williams is utterly absurd. And as someone who is sick of having to acknowledge and deconstruct the brutal sexism of sports on a regular basis, I hope that McEnroe realizes how outrageous and backwards that statement really was.
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