I am mostly aware of John McEnroe as a meme, says Eimear Ryan. I don’t remember watching him play in his heyday; by the time I was conscious of Wimbledon it was Graf, Agassi, Sampras and Navratilova who ruled the courts. 

But like many YouTube viewers, I know McEnroe as the ‘You cannot be serious!’ guy. One of tennis’s all-time greats, McEnroe is nonetheless most famous for his conduct at Wimbledon in 1981. Enraged at certain decisions that didn’t go his way, he yelled ‘You cannot be serious!’ repeatedly at the umpires — who were presumably too British, polite and bewildered to respond in kind.

This is the kind of guy McEnroe is — stubborn, arrogant, controversial. (Though in fairness, he has a bit of self-awareness and self-effacing humour about him. Not only did he call his autobiography You Cannot Be Serious, he has gamely spouted his catchphrase in everything from car adverts to the sitcom 30 Rock.)

This is a guy who says that male players grunting on the court are fine, but that women’s grunting is “annoying” and should be banned.

So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that he stirred up a mini-storm this week after an NPR interview in which he decided to hold forth on the relative achievements of one Serena Williams. While acknowledging that Serena is the best female player in the history of tennis, in the next breath McEnroe dismissed her stature in the sport as a whole: “If she played the men’s circuit she’d be, like, 700 in the world ... If she had to just play the men’s circuit, it would be an entirely different story.”

Serena’s response, a series of ‘Dear John’ tweets that quickly went viral, was the perfect balance of class and subtle shade: “I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based.”

Reminding him that as a pregnant woman, she has more important things to be worrying about than his opinion of her, she wrote: “Respect me and my privacy as I’m trying to have a baby. Good day sir.”

Since then, things have escalated a little.

McEnroe refused to apologise and even doubled down on his comments, suggesting on a morning news show that the matter could easily be settled once and for all: “I’ve got a solution. Solve the problem, and I’m sure the men would be all for this — the men and women play together. And then we don’t have to guess.”

I have to admit that it’s an intriguing prospect. If Serena were to play against someone on the men’s circuit — for argument’s sake, let’s say the guy ranked 700th — who knows what would happen?

Perhaps it would be very predictable, and the guy would blast Serena into oblivion with power serve after power serve. Men and women have different physicalities, after all; for all Serena’s gifts, she can’t match a man for testosterone levels.

But maybe, just maybe, it would go down a little differently. Perhaps it would be like the famous Battle of the Sexes in 1973, when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in straight sets. With Serena’s exemplary strength, skill, athleticism, and competitive edge, she could dispatch number 700 as ruthlessly and efficiently as she has her female opponents throughout her career. After all, you don’t accumulate 23 grand slams without learning all there is to know about the will to win.

But even Williams herself might adjust her expectations in this hypothetical match. Appearing on David Letterman’s talk show in 2013, she readily admitted that she, the Wimbledon champion at the time, wouldn’t stand a chance against her male counterpart.

“If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose, 6-0, 6-0, in five to six minutes, maybe ten minutes,” she said. “The men are a lot faster, they serve harder, they hit harder… It’s a completely different game.”

Serena Williams
Serena Williams

McEnroe’s comments are ill-conceived not because they’re incorrect, but because they’re so tired, mean-spirited, predictable, and beside the point. Why are we even discussing Serena in terms of men she’s never competed against? Why belittle what is, by any standard, an extraordinary record of sporting success? Why undermine an athlete who has entertained millions and inspired countless young women to pursue sport? And for what? Just to remind us all of the physical dominance of men? We get it, John. We live in the world. Let us have our heroines.

The controversy has illuminated an interesting wider question: How do we quantify greatness in sport, anyway? It doesn’t come down to sheer athleticism and ability. There are multiple factors to take into account: Longevity, strategy, temperament, mental strength, entertainment value, and the will to win.

Serena won this year’s Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant. That’s a challenge no male player will ever have to face.

Any athlete can only be judged against those they compete against. This is obvious any time we try to come up with all-time greatest player lists. These rankings are fun but ultimately faulty constructs: How can we realistically compare Christy Ring to Joe Canning or Maradona to Messi? They exist in completely different contexts and, to a certain extent, different sports.

Not that any of these nuances ever stopped McEnroe from making sweeping statements before. When Serena won the US Open in 2012, he gushed: “You’re watching, to me, the greatest player to ever play the game.”

And after Serena’s Wimbledon victory in 2015, he declared that she was “arguably the greatest athlete in the last 100 years”. No gender-based qualifications there. So what’s changed in the last few years? A clue might be found in why he was being interviewed by NPR in the first place: He was promoting his latest memoir, But Seriously. Is it possible he’s deliberately stoking controversy to flog a few more books? Oh, John.

You cannot be serious.


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