Serena Williams, John McEnroe and the men vs. women debate

John McEnroe's controversial comments about Serena Williams have ignited a gender debate. Should male and female athletes be pitted against each other?
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We’ll start with a story: a few days before the French Open, John McEnroe delivered a commencement address at the Trinity School in Manhattan, which he and his kids attended. By multiple accounts, it was a tremendous speech, tremendously delivered. It was strongly progressive and political, with more than a few zings at Donald Trump. I bring this up, yes, to point out that McEnroe is nobody’s caveman, especially on social issues. But I also bring this up to show that McEnroe knows the power of words; and the problems that arise when they are used sloppily.


The underlying thought exercise here—how would a top female fare against a male player?—is reasonable, especially for a casual follower. Unlike other sports, in tennis men and women perform simultaneously. This is a great virtue of the sport. I have friends who are insane NBA fans but can’t name the WNBA team in their town. In tennis, fans might prefer one tour over the other. But no one says, “I like the Williams sisters but who’s that muscular Spanish guy?” We think nothing of watching Federer take the court and Sharapova following him. We are less likely to wonder how, say, Diana Taurasi would fare in the NBA or Abby Wambach would fare on an MLS team because the leagues never intersect.

Not so tennis. With equal prize money adding to the sense of parity but fueling the discussion, it’s natural (logical, even) to wonder why there isn’t one circuit—mid-sentence trivia break: equestrian is a unisex Olympic sport—or how the best top female pro would fare against a male counterpart. The factual answer: likely not well. McEnroe was correct.

But as a matter of public discourse, the premise should be rejected and the answer should have been: “who cares?” The best woman would not likely beat the best male or the 100th male or even the 500th male. The same way Alabama would not beat the worst NFL team. Different leagues, different classes of competition, different bodies. Yet millions of fans are entertained watching Alabama and prefer college football to the NFL. Why? All sorts of reasons, some tribal, some aesthetic. But mostly because, against their relevant competition, Alabama is the best. The end. Likewise, Serena Williams competes in women’s tennis and is the best there ever was. End of discussion. She would not beat Nadal. She would also lose a race to Usain Bolt, a fight to Ronda Rousey, and regatta in the America’s Cup. And so what?

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Even tennis reinforces this, intuiting that these two tours that compete simultaneously and are paid equally—adding to the value proposition—are nevertheless distinct and not meant to be pitted against each other. We talk about top-seeded Andy Murray, without bothering to mention it’s the men’s division only. We talk about French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko without stopping to point out that it was the women’s title she won.

McEnroe’s sloppy response played out, predictably. An old (white) man was diminishing the career of a younger (black) woman. That Serena was not there to defend herself because she is profoundly pregnant didn’t exactly help the optics either, underscoring gender differences in the most vivid way possible. (I think we can all agree: even the best man in his division would not rank in the top 700 in baby delivery.) Serena’s responding tweets were perfect but didn’t exactly douse the controversy either.

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Even for a guy who’s been given great latitude over the years for his ready-fire-aim approach—“No bullshit” is the phrase splashed across the back cover of the book that McEnroe is currently promoting—this was an unforced error, intentional or not.

And while my gut is “not,” the history and context are important here, too. For years, McEnroe has not merely wondered how he’d fare against Serena, he has actively courted Serena for a Battle of the Sexes II event. It almost happened in Florida more than a decade ago and it resulted in a lawsuit. Cynically, you hope this time McEnroe didn’t speak so indelicately to revive interest.

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Inasmuch as there’s anything ironic here, in the follow-up question in this ill-fated interview McEnroe was asked what he wanted next. His response: “I need to find that inner peace, but that’s difficult for me.”

More irony? Later this summer Emma Stone stars as Billie Jean King, Steve Carrell stars as Bobby Riggs (Sarah Silverman steals the show as Gladys Heldman) and we get the Battle of the Sexes movie. And with it comes another chance to revisit this topic.