On NPR's "Weekend Edition" last Sunday, tennis great John McEnroe was asked a question that was impossible to answer correctly in the year 2017. It is worth noting that McEnroe is as much of a media professional as there is in sports, a paid commentator, a famous beloved personality and actor with a rich, full IMDB page, for crying out loud. He has a new book out that he's making the rounds promoting, so he's even on guard for trick questions: No one is more prepared for whatever you might throw at them than a person on a media tour.
And even he couldn't get this one right.
NPR interviewer Lulu Garcia-Navarro, who is great and has done a lot more in her career than just interview long-retired tennis players, asked McEnroe about Serena Williams. In the book, McEnroe called Williams the "greatest female tennis player in the world," which is a statement of fact so obvious that you don't even have to qualify that she's currently pregnant. (If the doctors would let her, I have zero doubt she'd win the U.S. Open despite a Sept. 5 due date. She might give birth between sets and then go out and win a tiebreaker.) Garcia-Navarro asked McEnroe why he felt the need to qualify her achievement by simply calling her the best female tennis player. Here's the exchange:
Garcia-Navarro: Some wouldn't qualify it, some would say she's the best player in the world. Why qualify it?
Now, McEnroe had a few ways he could have gone with this question, almost none of them good. He could have gone the pound-for-pound direction, saying that there is no more dominant player in the world than Serena Williams. This is the boxing argument, which acknowledges that if you put Floyd Mayweather in the ring with a 260-pound monster heavyweight champion -- say, current heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, who is 6-foot-6 and outweighs Mayweather by roughly 110 pounds -- he would surely be knocked out but understands that Mayweather is a far better boxer than Joseph. (Or at least was.) Sports fans comprehend this in a fundamental way in the present tense, though they struggle with it generationally. Mickey Mantle was thought of as the most massive physical specimen of his baseball team, but he was about 45 pounds lighter than Mike Trout and about 100 pounds lighter than Aaron Judge. McEnroe could have just said, "She's the best, no man has ever dominated his sport the way that Williams had," and then crossed his fingers that Garcia-Navarro didn't push him. But she probably would have.
He could have gone the joking direction, the playing-it-off lightly route. "Well," with a chuckle, "I guarantee you Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are glad they don't have to find out!" This would have given the answer the question was meant to elicit -- an overwhelming, unequivocal praise of Serena Williams--- while still evading the central premise of the question, which is, "Why won't you say Serena Williams is the best tennis player in the world?" Garcia-Navarro clearly wanted an answer to that question, and joking wouldn't do it.
But McEnroe, media commentator that he is, is also a lifelong competitor and a logical tactician at heart. He couldn't help but take the question straight on its face -- and, it must be noted, take the opportunity to school someone he felt didn't understand tennis as well as he does -- and that's when he got himself in real trouble, particularly when he started hinting that if he started training, maybe he could beat her.
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.
One of the reasons John McEnroe is John McEnroe -- one of the reasons he's one of the most fascinating characters in sports, still, and one of the reasons he's writing another autobiography even though he retired 20 years ago -- is that he can't help but speak his mind, regardless of how it will be perceived. Sometimes this works for him, like during his fun rant about Margaret Court earlier this month.
But in this case, he couldn't let go. He tried to praise Williams, but dug himself even further.
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.
Garcia-Navarro: Many people over the years, including, we should mention Donald Trump, the president, wanted you to play her, and you seemed to have at least thought about it.
McEnroe: Well I've thought about it. I didn't really want to do it, personally. I don't know, people always seemed -- I would say why don't they go ask Roger Federer? Or someone, you know they added the old fart that's you know 25 years over the hill. And I think I can still play and I think I could still -- I mean my kids don't think I can beat her anymore. Maybe I should get her now because she's pregnant, but the truth is that I think that sometimes -- I don't know why in tennis, I get it's that one battle of the sexes when Bobby Riggs played Billie Jean.
This led, inevitably, to an online kerfuffle that got so loud that Williams herself had to weigh in during her seventh month of pregnancy.
Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based.- Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) June 26, 2017
I've never played anyone ranked "there" nor do I have time. Respect me and my privacy as I'm trying to have a baby. Good day sir- Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) June 26, 2017
And now John McEnroe is a pighead jerk who everyone -- including, in a follow-up question, Garcia-Navarro -- is trying to turn into Bobby Riggs, or, worse, Donald Trump.
(In case you forgot, before Trump announced he was running for president and was just a dumb celebrity, he volleyed with Serena at the opening of one of his tennis clubs.)
But the problem here, of course, is that there was no correct answer for McEnroe that didn't evade the question entirely. It is possible for the following things to be true:
- Serena Williams is the most dominant athlete of our time.
- Serena Williams would likely struggle if she were playing the men's circuit rather than the women's.
This should not be seen as any sort of insult to Serena Williams, and proof of that would come from Williams herself. Here's Williams telling David Letterman in 2013 that she would lose to Andy Murray, "6-0, 6-0 in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes."
I would argue this is Williams selling herself considerably short, even shorter than McEnroe sells her. The men's game -- to its aesthetic detriment; it's one of the reasons it's so much more fun to watch Serena and the women play -- has become a power game, but if there's one physical attribute of tennis that Serena can share with the men, it's power. Serena averaged 109 mph on her serves during 2015 Grand Slam tournaments, according to SI.com, and Murray was only slightly ahead of her at 114 mph. (With a less aggressive second serve, at that.) Those numbers are close enough that I'm pretty certain Serena -- though perhaps not at seven months of pregnancy -- could get a game off Murray, and surely a few more. And that would put Williams way ahead of the 700th-best men's player in the world, currently someone named Issam Haitham Taweel, who is 124-199 lifetime. If you cornered Issam Haitham Taweel and gave him sodium pentothal requiring him to tell the truth, I bet he'd say, "She'd kick my ass."
But all of this, this whole discussion, is a disservice to Serena's brilliance. This is exactly the kind of crap successful women in any field are forced to deal with. Do something amazing, and deal with questions about "well, yeah, what if circumstances were like this?" Serena Williams is going to tie Margaret Court with her next Grand Slam title at the top of the all-time leaderboard -- that's going to be an amazing story when it happens, by the way; that baby is going to be courtside and none of us will ever forget it -- and then she'll pass her, and then there will be no doubt, not that there should be anyway. We've never seen anything like her.
But to make that not be enough, to require her to then answer yeah, but what about this? shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how amazing she is. As McEnroe points out, maybe someday women's tennis players will be on a par with men's tennis players; after all, 20 years ago, who could have imagined Serena doing this? But this is something to point forward to, not to point back to an elderly Bobby Riggs schmucking around for publicity with Billie Jean King. (A match that still has such power that a movie with Emma Stone and Steve Carell is coming out this fall.) Serena Williams is a step forward. There will be others.
Garcia-Navarro is a terrific journalist who clearly raised an eyebrow by McEnroe's insistence that Williams was the best female tennis player and pushed the questioning (as any good journalist would do), but it's also undeniable that she walked him right into a trap. The way we discuss these things now -- Queen Serena! G.O.A.T.! -- does not allow for any answer other than "Serena would destroy any fool who dared step in her path." Putting McEnroe in a position where he either says that or is lambasted is to put him an impossible position. If McEnroe said, "She would beat anyone who played her," it would ignore not just his understanding of tennis but it would also betray how much history Serena has made already. It would act as if she is some sort of meme rather than the greatest female tennis player of all time.
You can make a strong, perhaps impeccable argument that Serena Williams is the greatest tennis player of all time, full stop, because no one has ever dominated their sport, male or female, like she has. It is possible that's what Garcia-Navarro was asking in the first place, and McEnroe couldn't step out of his own way; his clearly dunderheaded "700th in the world" comment is what got him into this place. But it doesn't matter if Serena Williams would lose 6-0, 6-0 to Andy Murray, or if she would waste him. Williams' achievements do not need contextualizing, and they do not need to prove anything to anybody, not Lulu Garcia-Navarro, not John McEnroe, not me, not you.
To have this "debate" -- to have dopes all across television today saying things like, "Williams couldn't beat Federer!" and someone yelling back, "Yes she could!" -- is to do a disservice to what Williams has accomplished, and will still accomplish. This is us yelling at each other for no reason. Listen to Williams. Keep her out of our statements that are not factually based. What she's done speaks for itself. And it'll speak forever. It's us that should shut up.
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