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John McEnroe vs. Serena Williams, explained

Why McEnroe won’t apologize for comparing Williams to male tennis players.

Off Court At The 2017 Australian Open Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Serena Williams’s legacy as the most dominant player in tennis speaks for itself. But this week, retired player John McEnroe — who himself is a legendary tennis player and member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame — decided to put his own strange stamp on it.

In an interview with NPR that quickly drew backlash, McEnroe belittled, albeit perhaps inadvertently, Williams’s legacy. He was asked about the greatest tennis players of the sport, and said that while Williams has been dominating women’s tennis since 1999, “if she played the men's circuit she'd be like 700 in the world.”

“That doesn’t mean I don’t think Serena is an incredible player,” McEnroe continued. “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.”

While McEnroe isn’t entirely wrong — Williams has said similar things in the past, and in 1998 she played an exhibition match and lost to the 203rd-ranked male player — his observation, especially the 700 number he seems to have pulled out of nowhere, seems unnecessary. Williams’s litany of accomplishments (which include 23 grand slam championship wins and counting, Olympic gold medals, $84 million in prize money won, and a grand slam tournament win while pregnant) doesn’t need wins over male tennis players to justify its greatness.

Since he first made the comment, McEnroe has been the subject of plenty of outrage for diminishing Williams’s career in a flippant way. And he’s responded by doubling down on his assertions, even throwing out the idea of combining the men’s and women’s tours to prove who is really the best.

At a glance, his stubborn behavior and controversy courting may seem brash and even strange for a man who in the past has gushed about how dominant and transcendent of an athlete Williams is. But there’s also another factor at play here: McEnroe’s got a book to sell.

The controversy started when McEnroe got himself into trouble with a clumsy NPR interview

Right now the tennis season is in a bit of a lull as players gear up for the next grand slam — the four major tournaments (the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open) — of the sport’s season. The Australian Open concluded earlier this year, the French Open ended earlier this month, and Wimbledon officially starts on July 3.

Even though McEnroe has been retired for years, grand slam tournaments are still an opportunity for him to take home a paycheck — he’s worked as a commentator for CBS, NBC, USA, and ESPN to analyze players’ strategies, temperaments, and tendencies and offer live commentary on how a match is unfolding.

His interview with NPR this week was a rare instance when people heard McEnroe’s thoughts on tennis outside the context of a televised match. In that interview, which is part of McEnroe’s promotional book tour for his new memoir, NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro asked him a series of questions about the best players in the history of the sport, eventually bringing up Serena Williams.

What’s fascinating about this interaction is that Garcia-Navarro does a good job of getting McEnroe to talk himself into a bit of trouble. It’s not like he makes a totally unprompted and organic observation about Williams being ranked 700th; he’s pushed and prodded into it a bit. Here’s the full exchange (emphasis mine):

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're talking about male players, but there [are] 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 US Open, etc. But if she had to just play the circuit — the men's circuit — that would be an entirely different story.

McEnroe could’ve certainly answered Garcia-Navarro’s question more elegantly, and made a point about the differences between the men’s and women’s tours. And in the past, he has, according to ESPN, called Serena Williams “arguably the greatest athlete of the last 100 years.” After Williams won the US Open in 2012, McEnroe declared to those following his live commentary, “You're watching, to me, the greatest player to ever play the game.”

But those sorts of comments don’t really get people talking. Whereas McEnroe’s comparison in suggesting that Williams is “only” as good as the 700-ranked male player (a distinction that belongs to Issam Haitham Taweel from Egypt, according to the Association of Tennis Professionals), even though Williams is unquestionably the most dominant tennis player of all time, is guaranteed outrage fuel.

In short, NPR had a great interview with a great, controversy-stirring quote on its hands. And suddenly, during a quiet period for tennis, McEnroe found himself embroiled in a controversy.

Serena Williams told McEnroe to mind his business. He probably won’t.

For her part, Williams largely brushed off McEnroe’s comment, which actually falls in line — in terms of the women’s and men’s game being different — with statements she’s made herself in the past.

In a 2013 interview with David Letterman, Williams spoke candidly about competing against male players. She had no qualms talking about how different the sport is on the men’s tour versus the women’s tour:

"If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose, 6-0, 6-0, in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes," Williams told Letterman. "The men are a lot faster, they serve harder, they hit harder. … It's a completely different game."

Williams also explained that the physicality of tennis — on both the men’s and women’s tours — has evolved from decade to decade. Players are now stronger, taller, and more conditioned than they used to be. There’s also, as she pointed out, a massive physical difference, in terms of the velocity of the balls being hit, the power behind players’ shots, and the angles at which the ball comes at you.

That’s easy to imagine if you compare even the most basic stats of two players like the 6-foot-6 male player Juan Martin del Potro, who’s currently ranked 32nd, and the 5-foot-8 Angelique Kerber, who’s currently the No. 1-ranked women’s tennis player in the world. And to be clear, it’s difficult to believe that male players in McEnroe’s glory days would be able to keep up with today’s most elite players.

That said, Williams being self-effacing and talking about her own game is a lot different in tone than McEnroe making an observation about her. She’s not trying to quantify her legacy the way McEnroe is. She’s not making a point in trying to gauge where she’d be ranked among the men. She’s also talking about herself as opposed to someone else judging her accomplishments.

After McEnroe’s comments began circulating, Williams tweeted a plea for him to not mention her name in any future discussions he might have about tennis rankings:

On Tuesday, McEnroe appeared on CBS This Morning — remember, he’s on a book tour — and was offered the chance to apologize for his statements and to honor Williams’s request to keep her name out of this narrative. He didn’t take it.

Instead, he rehashed what happened during his interview with NPR:

She's the greatest female player that ever lived, then the lady said to me, I don't remember which one, but she said, “Why did you say woman, why don't you just say the greatest, you know, tennis player that ever lived?” And so then I felt the need, however unfortunately probably, to defend myself. I don't know, just say what I really felt, which is about what I think she would be.

McEnroe is being brutally honest here and seems to realize (“unfortunately probably”) that in defending himself, he comes off sounding crass or regrettable.

But after repeating what happened, he also leaned into the controversy a bit more by floating a theory about men and women playing on the same tour: "Why don't you combine, just solve the problem — I'm sure the men would be all for this — the men and women play together, and then we don't have to guess.”

This spat is more about McEnroe courting controversy than tarnishing Williams’s legacy

To be very clear, Serena Williams’s tennis legacy has long had an unwelcome asterisk attached to it, in the form of people frequently belittling her or tainting her accomplishments. Critiques of her dominance and superiority have, in the past, often devolved into racist and sexist attacks against her.

But I don’t think McEnroe is coming from those nasty places — especially since he’s previously talked about Williams being the greatest athlete ever to play the game of tennis — as much as he is courting controversy and stirring up interest for his new book, But Seriously (it hits stores Tuesday).

McEnroe made a name for himself as player by not only being good but also having a heart-on-his-sleeve attitude. As a tennis player, he was known for having the audacity to fight with chair umpires and referees. He may have stumbled into his comments about Williams’s hypothetical ranking on the men’s tour, but now it feels like he’s solidly leaning into the controversy he caused. And he wouldn’t be in the position he is now — a best-selling author and commentator — if he were a meek or quiet player.

With this drama, he’s setting an expectation that his book might contain similar controversial observations and uncensored glimmers from the mind of McEnroe.

Meanwhile, for Williams, his comments haven’t done as much harm. In fact, they have galvanized her fan base and created a moment to appreciate her accomplishments. One of those accomplishments is that earlier this year, Williams won her 23rd major tournament while pregnant, something current tennis greats like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will never have the chance to do.

And if fans’ sentiments weren’t enough, the timing of McEnroe’s controversial comment worked out such that one day after he made it, Vanity Fair revealed its new cover featuring a pregnant Williams:

Must read article. Link in bio

A post shared by Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) on

In the accompanying profile, Williams talks about her plans to return to tennis in January 2018 after the birth of her child.

“I don’t think my story is over yet,” she told the magazine.

It’s a reminder that Williams’s legacy — of being the greatest tennis player to ever grace the sport — is still being written, and that she’s still capable of achieving even more. And to the McEnroes out there, it’s a reminder that she’s the only one in charge of that legacy.

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