Here we ago again. Almost two decades after saying that any male college or senior tour tennis player could beat Venus or Serena Williams, John McEnroe is still making unfavorable—and at this point in sports and cultural history, pretty damn pointless—cross-gender comparisons involving the latter Williams sister.
While promoting his new memoir during a weekend interview with NPR, McEnroe called Serena "the best female player ever—no question." That prompted the following exchange with host Lulu Garcia-Navarro:
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.
A couple of things, here. First, McEnroe isn't wrong to assert that, No, Actually, Serena Williams Is Not The Absolute Best Player On A Planet Earth Where Human Males Also Play High-Level Competitive Tennis. Nor is he necessarily being sexist. Males tend to be larger and stronger than females—thanks, hormones!—and that can confer a competitive advantage in many sports, particularly head-to-head ones.
Indeed, Williams—who has long practiced with male hitting partners, the same way many women's college basketball teams scrimmage against men—pretty much agrees with McEnroe's assessment. As noted by the Washington Post, she told David Letterman four years ago that "men's tennis and women's tennis are completely, almost, two separate sports. If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose 6-0, 6-0 in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes.
"No, it's true. It's a completely different sport. The men are a lot faster and they serve harder, they hit harder, it's just a different game. I love to play women's tennis. I only want to play girls, because I don't want to be embarrassed."
This is where McEnroe is being a bit blinkered, and in a way that's all too common in sports discourse across both time and gender. It's not enough to acknowledge and appreciate an athlete's accomplishments and greatness relative to their competition, even though that's the whole point of playing the games. Nope. For reasons that probably have to do with the deep-seated fan desire for ¿quien es mas macho? dick-measuring certainty—and let's be honest, it's basically men who are play-acting arias on cable television and calling into sports talk radio about this—we have to decide and declare who the best is, period.
And that's a limited way of thinking about things. Sort of boring, too. Send LeBron James back in time, like the Terminator, and he'd likely lay waste to the 1950s-60s NBA; does that mean Bill Russell sucked or should be bumped down a few notches on the Great Imaginary Ziggurat of Hoops Awesomeness? Do we really need a Ziggurat in the first place? Serena Williams can't compete with Andy Murray. No fucking shit. Have you watched her play against other women? She's awesome. Arguably more dominant against them than any male player has been against his peers. Which is where the more fair—and more fun—argument lies, anyway.
Look, it pains me a little to give credit to boxing, a sport that transforms brain damage into extra zeros in Don King's bank account, but this is one area the fight game gets exactly right. Boxing fans don't ask if Sugar Ray Leonard could knock out Mike Tyson; they compare fighters to their legitimate comparables, apples to apples, and are smart enough to embrace the concept of pound-for-pound greatness. No absolutes or periods necessary.
The rest of us should do the same. The alternative? It's Jesse Owens racing horses. A self-proclaimed ninja getting pummeled in the second UFC. Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor teaming up to separate a whole bunch of suckers and their money. It's McEnroe presumably trying to give a compliment, yet managing to be both condescending, petty, and frankly, pretty tired.
Oh, and back when Donald Trump was mostly notable as a business impresario who managed to lose money owning a casino, it was also enough to prompt the future president to offer McEnroe and the Williams sisters $1 million for a winner-take-all match. Which ought to tell you everything you need to know about this debate.
Update: Serena has responded with a sizzling forehand winner down the line.