The John McEnroe-Serena Williams controversy goes far past who would win
As Billie Jean King explained, McEnroe has sought a match with Williams for 15 years
John McEnroe raised ire over his comments about Serena Williams being. Since then, Williams has fired back at McEnroe with a pair of Tweets telling him to respect her privacy . After McEnroe refused to apologize for his comments, some of the most interesting input on the entire story has . King, who knows something about playing men in cross-gender tennis matches, asserted on Boomer & Carton that McEnroe has been trying to get Williams to play him for the past 15 years.
McEnroe has since said that he regrets his comments, and he's been surprised by the reaction to them. "It would have been better not to have said it," he said on an ESPN conference call. "I didn't realize it would create something like this." McEnroe also said that "she's a great player and it's apples and oranges," before concluding by saying "This is not something that has been earth shattering, that I feel there's a difference in the level of the women and the men."
To McEnroe's credit, he didn't just come out and say that Williams would be ranked No. 700. In fact, had he answered the question like he did above, the outrage would be greatly reduced. He was goaded into saying it by NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro. The 700 number, pulled from thin air, is the problematic part of his statement. Williams wouldn't be able to compete with the top male players in the world, undoubtedly. She's said as much herself on David Letterman's show in the past. King agreed with that assessment, telling Boomer Esiason and Phil Simms on Boomer & Carton that no top woman has asserted that a female player would beat a top male. She also bemoaned the lack of contextualization on women's statements about these matches, saying that "everybody always quotes the men unfortunately. They don't quote [the women]."
King further said that McEnroe's comments weren't just about stirring controversy, but also part of a larger picture for McEnroe. She said that McEnroe has wanted to play Williams for the past 15 years, and this is just the latest in an ongoing saga of rabble-rousing designed to make Williams play him in a match. The financial prospects are lucrative, as King and Esiason noted. Esiason said it would be for "a million bucks," to which King replied "it would be worth more than that ... because of all the things happening around it."
So how much truth is there to King's claims? Obviously no one is in McEnroe's mind, but he has seemed to be particularly enamored with Williams for the past two years. King likened it to when Bobby Riggs hounded her to play a match, which she declined until Margaret Court lost to him. At that point, she felt an obligation to play it. McEnroe has always been controversial, but he's never been as outright disrespectful as Riggs was.
In 2015, McEnroe said that, at 56 (at the time), he could beat Williams to Jimmy Kimmel. In that same interview, he said that Donald Trump made an offer to the two of them to play each other, which they turned down. He also said that if the price was right, he would consider the match, it just wasn't right at the time. He felt that he had too much to lose, and he would be "banned from the men's locker room" if he lost.
Then, in September, McEnroe asserted that the Williams sisters have a bad attitude. He said that while they're great players, "they have no respect for anyone in the game." These comments came, ironically, after Serena expressed passing interest in playing in some men's tournaments. This was three years after Williams told Letterman that she wouldn't stand a chance against top male players. "Do women golfers say they could go out and beat Tiger Woods?" he asked. McEnroe's stance hasn't changed from then, as he told The New Yorker "a lot of male college kids and members of the seniors' tour could beat the sisters."
So why is there so much outrage now? The real question lies in what's different. Some believe that McEnroe is using this as a publicity stunt to sell his book. Then there are King's assertions that he just wants a match with Williams. Or maybe it's that Williams is pregnant so even if she wanted to play a match, there's no way to make it happen. McEnroe's follow-up comments also fly in the face of reason, as he said that the best solution would be for women to play men. The universal consensus is that they wouldn't win, so why is that a necessary step?
To put things in a different frame, the real reason people seem so perturbed is because of what McEnroe himself said on the conference call in which he expressed regrets: It's apples to oranges. It's unfair to put a female legend under a completely different lens. It's like looking at Alabama and asking how they'd stack up against the previous year's Super Bowl winners. He moved the goalposts to diminish one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Not female tennis players -- tennis players. Period.
Whether or not King is right about McEnroe's motives, the facts are simple. McEnroe's comments aren't so much regrettable because they're false, they're regrettable because they're dismissive of Williams's accomplishments due to "lesser competition" in some form. Serena Williams is a women's tennis player, therefore her accomplishments should be put up against other tennis players in her league. It's like looking at Roger Federer and going "18 Grand Slams is great, but can he wrestle?"
It's true that it should be a non-conversation. The top men's players, and even the mid-tier men's players, would likely handle Williams with relative ease. At the end of the day, when it comes to great tennis players, Williams will go down in the annals of history. For the record, it's unlikely that the No. 700 player on the men's tour will. Williams plans on returning to tennis in 2018, and she is merely one Grand Slam behind Margaret Court, who has 24. If she passes it, she has to be talked about among the great tennis players of all time, regardless of gender. Roger Federer has the most all-time for men with 18.
If McEnroe does somehow get his match-up with Williams down the road, and he wins, that doesn't diminish Williams's legacy. Losing to Riggs didn't diminish Court's (she's done that plenty handily herself since retirement, and she's still recognized as an all-time great). But Williams has nothing to prove, and McEnroe knows it. It shouldn't be a discussion, as men and women's tennis are entirely different games. As such, the legacies of players in each should be treated as separate entities, rather than focusing on hypothetical matches.
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