Tennis legend John McEnroe has never been shy with his opinions. The seven-time Grand Slam winner, who has long been retired from the sport, is making headlines this week for something he said about Serena Williams, another all-time great.
During an interview with NPR to plug his new autobiography But Seriously, McEnroe was asked about Serena and how she would fare against the top male tennis pros, given that she’s been so dominant in the women’s circuit. The question was also framed in the context of the upcoming film Battle of the Sexes, a dramatic/comedic retelling of the famous male vs. female match from 1973 featuring Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
McEnroe’s answer surprised many people.
“If she played the men’s circuit she’d be (ranked) like 700 in the world,” McEnroe said.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t think Serena is an incredible player,” he added. “I do.”
“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, because she’s been in it so many times, so many situations at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, etcetera. But if she had to just play the circuit – the men’s circuit – that would be an entirely different story.”
Anyone is outraged by those comments should keep this in mind: in 1998, Serena and her sister Venus claimed that they could beat any male tennis player ranked outside the top 200 in the world. Karsten Braasch, then ranked 203, took them up on the challenge and easily beat them both. The sisters, who were admittedly just 16 and 17-years-old at the time, backtracked and said they could probably beat anyone ranked 350 or lower.
So really, McEnroe’s claims aren’t that crazy. He’s not being sexist. It’s just not realistic to have the best female tennis player in the world — as great as she is — compete against the men.
Williams, 35, is currently taking time off from tennis due her being pregnant with her first child, which is due later in 2017. She hasn’t officially stated whether she plans to return to the game.